Abbey Schnell remembers texting a friend before her colonoscopy.
“I’ll be fine,” she wrote. “This is what old people go through...”
And Abbey was young.
She’d just had a baby. Remy was 2 weeks old; her son Urijah was not quite 2.
The 25-year-old woke from the procedure that day in 2012 to news she never expected. The blood in her stools wasn’t caused by hemorrhoids after all; she had stage 4 colon cancer.
Abbey had chemo and radiation and surgery to remove her rectum and 13 inches of her colon. She had a permanent colostomy. She had more chemo.
She’s still having chemo, a maintenance drug and not a cure, after discovering two years ago that the cancer had spread to her lungs.
It’s Tuesday, the day before Abbey’s every-other-week chemo, a three-hour appointment that will leave her down for days.
Which means she’ll work long hours early in the week from home in her job in insurance underwriting so she doesn’t get behind. And she’ll plan meals ahead so her boys can still eat well.
And on Sunday, she’ll play sand volleyball at Spike’s with her husband, Adam, like always.
She’ll be good.
She’ll be Abbey.
That’s her goal: To live her life.
She wrote about that in a third-person essay last year.
“Abbey wants to provide the most normal life she can for her boys while she is still here and that is one reason she continues to work and fight …”
She sent her story to The Colon Club, a nonprofit focused on colon cancer patients younger than 50 with one goal: to educate as many people as possible, as early as possible.
For 10 years, the organization had published the Colondar, a calendar featuring 12 colorectal cancer patients -- all younger than 50 at their diagnosis.
The calendars showed the faces and scars of survivors, taking away the stigma, said Krista Wilson, president of The Colon Club’s board of directors.
But they wanted to do more, and in 2015 began publishing in-depth stories of survivors in an annual magazine, Colondar 2.0. Twelve four-page spreads with plenty of photos and the hard details of life with colon cancer.
Abbey got a phone call this spring, telling her she had been selected, and in June she was on a plane to Nashville.
It was easy to choose the young mom from Nebraska, Krista says.
“She is amazing. People can connect with Abbey by looking at the way she handles things … and seeing there is hope for me.”
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Abbey spent five days with 11 other colon cancer survivors at a retreat in the woods outside of the city.
“It was really weird, the bond we already had even though we were strangers, it felt like an instant brotherhood.”
She pauses. “And sisterhood.”
It was her first time away from her sons, she says from the living room of a cozy ranch with a garden out back in the middle of Lincoln.
Urijah, 5, is on the carpet playing with his Happy Meal toys. Remy, 3, is watching YouTube videos. Two boys who love to wrestle with their dad, who's home from work and on the couch with his family.
And Abbey, Abbey looks healthy. She looks happy.
She calls herself the “momager” of the household. She calls Adam, the man she met while she was a junior at Southwest High School, her researcher. And her rock.
His wife is the strong one, Adam says. “Through the whole thing, it’s not got her down.”
Abbey doesn’t look down. Or sick.
She wears extensions in her dark hair. Her toenails are painted pink. Her life’s philosophy is inked across her right ankle: Hope for the best. Expect the worst. Take what you get.
Her grandpa’s words, she says. Tattooed before her diagnosis.
He died of colon cancer, an old man. She’d never thought about her family history or worried about symptoms.
She wishes now she’d worried more. Pushed her doctor to do testing when she noticed the blood during her pregnancy. Pushed her oncologist for a biopsy when the spot on her lung -- so small, probably nothing -- showed up in early testing.
“Really push your doctor and know your family history,” she says now. “I really wish I would have kept on my doctors more.”
Instead, she shares her story, at the zoo on National Cancer Day, during Colon Cancer Awareness Month at CHI St. Elizabeth, any time anyone asks.
Her oldest son knows she has cancer, Abbey says. She’s not sure he understands what that means. Her dad died of lung cancer while she was sick, and he knows Papa Jeff is gone.
You have cancer, he says. Why didn’t you die?
Abbey has an answer to that: Because she is living.
She is creating memories.
She has a message: Know your body. Know when something isn’t right. Cancer isn’t the end.
Learn from it. Take what you get.
“Don’t give up. Keep going and living the life you still have.”