IOWA CITY - Julia Audlehelm always thought that if she faced a life-threatening disease, she would catch a flight someplace warm, crack open a Corona and wait out her final days.
But when the North Liberty resident was diagnosed with colon cancer in early 2011, just days after her daughter's engagement announcement, she quickly realized that doing nothing was not an option.
"I always thought that I'd sit on the beach in Maui and kind of not do anything about it; I'd let myself go," said Audlehelm, a supported community living associate with Goodwill of the Heartland. "Now you realize you've got a fight in you and you stick through it."
Julia Audlehelm creates a new scarf at her North Liberty home on Wednesday, March 12, 2014. Audlehelm, an accomplished artist, now makes scarves to raise awareness about colon cancer after defeating the illness herself. The American Cancer Society estimates that 1,580 Iowans will be diagnosed this year with colon cancer, which is the third most common cancer among men and women.
Now, three years later, with her signature blue silk scarf and matching colon cancer ribbon pinned to her collar, Audlehelm, 62, looks back on her fight with cancer as a survivor, the Iowa City Press-Citizen reported.
It was New Year's Day 2011 when Audlehelm found herself suffering excruciating stomachaches - enough to leave her doubled over in pain and unable to move.
The then-59-year-old said she had dealt with stomach issues most of her life, but never anything like this. It soon became too painful to ignore any longer.
After multiple trips to physicians, it was recommended that Audlehelm undergo a colonoscopy, a procedure she hadn't yet had.
The standard size of a polyp is roughly that of a hangnail. What doctors described to Audlehelm after her colonoscopy was a polyp the size of a thumb, and it tested positive for cancer.
With that last word, Audlehelm went numb. Her thoughts went to her two children, Emily and John, her husband, Larry, and then to her family members who were no longer alive.
"All my family had already died. I have my husband's family and my children, and I figured I was supposed to be the survivor and this wasn't fair, this wasn't right," Audlehelm said. "It hits you and part of you feels like, 'What did I do wrong?' and then you realize how many people are going through it, too."
March has been Colon Cancer Awareness Month since 2000.
According to the American Cancer Society, about 140,000 U.S. adults are diagnosed with colon/rectal cancer each year.
It's estimated that 1,580 Iowans will be diagnosed with colon cancer this year, while roughly 570 people will die in the state from the disease.
Although colon cancer is the third most common cancer for men and women and accounts for 9 percent of all new cancer diagnoses, it is one of the most treatable cancers - with close to half the deaths being preventable if all Americans over the age of 50 were screened, said Kelly Lamb, manager with Iowa City's Russell and Ann Gerdin American Cancer Society Hope Lodge.
"Early on it really doesn't cause any symptoms. So that's part of the problem, is you really can't catch it unless you have a colonoscopy," Lamb said. "But because so many people don't get tested, only four out of 10 are diagnosed when it's still treatable."
Audlehelm turned 50 nine years before her diagnosis, but the hassle of setting up a colonoscopy, coupled with the fact that she felt fine, kept her from getting the procedure.
It wasn't until the unbearable pain set in that doctors found the cancer.
"That's a weird thought, to think that pain equals good luck," Audlehelm said. "But it's good luck when the pain wakes you up rather than be a deadly silence."
Audlehelm's daughter, Emily Haworth of Iowa City, still recalls the shock everyone felt with her mother shared the news that she had colon cancer.
"My husband and I had just gotten engaged. It was a pretty big moment of not understanding how I could go into the next stage of my life and not have my mom there for it," Haworth said.
But rather than head off to Maui, Audlehelm was determined to fight, and in February 2011, doctors at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics removed the polyp and 12 inches of her colon to prevent the cancer from spreading.
Shortly after the surgery, doctors declared Audlehelm cancer free. Last summer, she was notified that her annual tests now have to take place only every three years.
Audlehelm praised the family members who supported her, the friends who kept her laughing, her co-workers at Goodwill of the Heartland for standing by her and the professionals who provided her medical care.
As with the news of her mother's diagnosis, Haworth said finding out that Audlehelm had beaten colon cancer came with its share of disbelief.
"It sort of felt like we got away with something, like we snuck one past," Haworth said.
After her mother died a few years ago, Audlehelm inherited a collection of her mom's possessions - including her silk dyeing materials.
After making scarves for her daughter's wedding, Audlehelm took her new-found skill one step further and began dying silk scarves to raise awareness of colon cancer. For every scarf sold, Audlehelm donates 11 cents to colon cancer research.
"I like to think I can use what happened to me to benefit other people. I don't have much more than 11 cents worth to be able to donate, but you pull all that energy together and a lot of 11 cents can turn into something that can," she said.
Each scarf is signed "Julia 11-11" in honor of her mother and to celebrate another cancer-free birthday - Audlehelm's birthday is Nov. 11, and on Nov. 11, 2011, she celebrated the first of many birthdays after her battle with cancer.
Audlehelm said she also wants to remind everybody to get screened for colon cancer when they reach 50.
For those with colon cancer in their immediate family, as with Audlehelm's children, that test comes a whole decade earlier.
As Audlehelm can attest, with colon cancer, one of the most diagnosed cancers and highly treatable when caught in time, a somewhat unpleasant test can truly save your life.
"Hug your loved ones and tell them to get their butt in there and do it. So what? It's a little uncomfortable. So is dying, so is cancer," Audlehelm said.
Information from: Iowa City Press-Citizen, www.press-citizen.com/
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