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Hockey Fights Cancer: A Sense of 'Self'

Living with stage IV colon cancer, hockey fan Julie Self heals with humor-and a mission to urge adults under 50 to get screened sooner rather than later

by Art Thiel / @NHLSeattle_ / NHLSeattle.com

Regarding her favorite sport, Julie Self sometimes amazes herself.

"I'm a little crazy about hockey," she says. "If the goal horn ever breaks, they could substitute me for it."

Her love affair on ice started in 2009 when a friend who lived in New England suggested Self adopt an NHL team to follow.

"She recommended I follow the Boston Bruins, who have a storied history," says Self. "I said I'll be a Bruins fans and you be a Sounders fan. We traded allegiances."

Less than two years later Self celebrated Boston beating the Canucks in a decisive Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final. 

"What I found fascinating was the game is so fast and physical--it's a miracle anyone scores in hockey," says Self. "There's so much skill involved." 

Self skated a bit when she was younger, "but I'm a much better observer of sports than a participant…I suck with style [at skating], but I own it."

Self's sense of humor and, well, self, have turned out to be vital assets as she copes with the consequences of colon cancer. Diagnosed in December 2015 with Stage 4 cancer at age 47 that had spread to her liver. 

Five weeks ago, Self underwent a third abdominal surgery. Doctors at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance "removed all the cancer they could see," she says.

Following a 12-day hospital stay, Self returned to her Snohomish home. With the help of in-home nursing, siblings and a grocery delivery service, she has resumed watching Seattle sports and her beloved Bruins.

Self is committed to an ongoing task: Alert everyone within her reach to get screened for colon cancer before the traditionally recommended age 50. As part of the NHL's annual November "Hockey Fights Cancer" campaign, Self agreed to share her story. 

"If one person under 50 reads this story and says, 'Oh, maybe I should go get checked out,' that's what I want," she says. "Screening is so important. Drinking all that stuff [the pre-screening liquid 'cleanser'] is the worst. But it's lots better than what I've gone through."

For years, doctors have recommended screenings for everyone starting at age 50, followed by tests at five- to 10-year intervals depending on the test results. But according to Dr. Stacey Cohen, a gastrointestinal cancer specialist at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance since 2011, evidence grows that younger people are at increasing risk.

"We know from our work with national studies than indicate the incidence of colorectal cancer in the age 20-to-49 group is increasing," said Cohen, who also works with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and University of Washington Medicine. "This is very concerning, because this is an unscreened portion of the population. When patients have symptoms such as colorectal bleeding, blood in the stool, bloating and abdominal pain, they often are written off as irritable bowel syndrome, hemorrhoid bleeding or a million other things. The care provider has to consider it could be cancer."

Three years before her cancer diagnosis, Self told a doctor about her abdominal pains, and symptoms such as bleeding and alternating between diarrhea and constipation. She was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome. But no treatment worked. Pain persisted.

In late 2015, a biopsy showed cancer.

"When I was diagnosed, initially I felt validated," says Self. "I thought, finally, now we can make a plan. Obviously, it was a big shock."

As part of the plan, Self started chemotherapy treatment. She continued to work as an administrative coordinator for a civil engineering firm. Her co-workers were supportive. 

"After I began losing my hair, one of the guys at work who was bald said, 'Julie, you finally decided to join my team,' " she recalls, laughing. "Then one day I came to work to find a box on my desk from the Bruins. How did they find me?"

Through a co-worker who contacted a Bruins' community representative, the team reached out to Self with a package containing a puck, calendar, hat and other swag. Upon recovering from her first surgery in August 2016, Self's sister and brother-in-law joined her on a trip to Boston for a Bruins game.

"I met the club's fan representative, who'd been interacting with me," she says. "He would always be interested in how I was doing. I felt I had a real connection with the club. When they create this program, "Hockey Fights Cancer,' I feel like they really mean that."

For many of us who face emotional and physical issues, connection with a sports team or individual athletes can be part of the therapy.

"For many patients, their passion for sports is an opportunity to get excited about something," Cohen say. "I told Julie to make it one of her goals to get back to Boston. We made it a goal to make her feel as good she can for her trips, by moving Julie's appointments around. At Stage 4, I try to remind my patients the reason they are putting themselves through this, is to have good times and good memories with things that are meaningful to them."

"A cancer diagnosis is not about losing all hope," says Julie Self. "I am not dying today. I feel OK today. The cancer might come back, but I can't live in that space. I have stuff to do and enjoy.'

Self remembers what a liver specialist told her back in December 2015: "We are treating this like a chronic disease."

To Self, that meant she could align herself with "diabetics" and other patients who face chronic issues and not consider the diagnosis "a death sentence even if it is Stage 4."

Self plans to be on hand for NHL Seattle's opening night in the fall of 2021. In fact, as the team's depositor No. 507, she will have some prime seats. She made a strong and, clearly, successful effort last March 1 on Deposit Day.  

"That morning I called Ticketmaster and held my phone open," she says. "I was at a work meeting with about 30 people and I managed to talk someone into starting the meeting a little big late. I was so excited I got in."

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