For so many years, Kelly Noonan prioritized a lot of elements in her life – her family, her career as a nurse, her friends, her responsibilities as a community volunteer.
If she didn’t prioritize herself, well, any busy mom would understand. She knew she should schedule a colonoscopy when she turned 50, but there were so many other priorities and so many other things to schedule, and never enough time.
So, the pain, when it came, was a shock, followed by the further shock of being able to see a tumor bulging from her body. “I thought, ‘Oh, my uterus is popping out’,” she remembers. “I’m a nurse and I still had no idea what was going on.”
Following a quick succession of appointments, she learned that she had adenocarcinoma, a type of cancer that develops in glands that line the organs, in her rectum. Since that December 2019 diagnosis, she has had multiple rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and she has learned the vital lessons of slowing down and taking care of her health. She has learned it’s OK to prioritize herself.
“I’d always put work first, put taking care of others first,” Noonan explains. “That’s something I’ll always do because it’s who I am, but I’ve also learned to put other things first, too. Cancer has really not been fun, but it’s gotten me to slow down and think about what I’m feeling and how I’m feeling. It’s taught me that I can’t take care of anyone else if I’m not taking care of myself.”
An unwelcome diagnosis on a busy weekend
Noonan remembers exactly where she and her family were on I-70 when a resident physician called her with life-changing news.
The family was on their way to Vail where Bridget, her daughter and competitive figure skater, would perform in the Holiday Spectacular. It was a typical weekend for Noonan, traveling as a skate parent when she wasn’t going somewhere else for her son, Jackson’s, activities. She and her husband, Steve, maintained a whirlwind pace as the parents of two teenagers.
But then the call on the way to Vail. In the weeks preceding that call, she’d felt increasing pain until she finally scheduled an appointment with a nurse practitioner. Her doctor happened to be in the office that day, but neither provider was able to complete an exam on Noonan because she was in so much pain.
They recommended she see a urogynecologist and got her an appointment for the next day with a provider who performed a punch biopsy on the visible mass. Following that appointment, she was referred to a University of Colorado (CU) Cancer Center multidisciplinary care team that included Christopher Lieu, MD, associate director of clinical research for the CU Cancer Center and an associate professor of medical oncology in the CU School of Medicine.
“One of the key take-home points to Kelly’s treatment is the importance of multidisciplinary care, which is a specialty of the CU Cancer Center,” Lieu says. “In one appointment, a patient can see a surgeon, medical oncologist, radiation oncologist, gastroenterologist, social work, genetics, nutrition, and other specialties in one visit, and then we work together to come up with the best treatment plan for that patient.”
Biomarker testing helps guide treatment
Within weeks of her initial diagnosis of stage 3c colorectal cancer, meaning the cancer has grown past the colon or rectum wall and had spread to the tissue that lines the abdominal organs, Noonan had the first of eight rounds of FOLFOX chemotherapy treatment. That was followed by surgery in August 2020 and a temporary ileostomy, which was reversed two months later.
By November, Noonan appeared to have no evidence of the disease (NED) and several months after that she began making plans to return to work full-time as a nurse in the Post-Anesthesia Care Unit. However, before she could do that, a scan showed several new tumors and that the cancer had spread to her lungs.
“She had a very quick recurrence and then metastatic disease, so the second big take-home is biomarker testing,” Lieu says. “Through biomarker testing we learned that Kelly has a really special alteration, a HER2 amplification, that opens another host of exciting targeted therapies that are new and she’s responding to them very well. She’s just been incredibly courageous and graceful throughout her entire treatment.”
Noonan currently is on her fifth type of chemotherapy – the only one that has caused hair loss – as well as a two-drug therapy targeting the HER2 amplification. Her scans last month showed the tumors in her lungs have shrunk significantly, and Noonan hopes her scans in April will bring even better news.
Grateful for every moment of life
Through her more than two-year cancer journey, as she’s learned to slow down and take care of herself, she has given herself the gift of patience and a willingness to venture beyond standards of care that have been the hallmark of her professional career. She joined a yoga for cancer group and began reiki treatments, and began journaling her cancer journey online on Caring Bridge.
“I hadn’t done any of these things before,” Noonan says. “I was a person who took Tylenol or ibuprofen if something was wrong, and I maybe remembered to take a multivitamin once or twice a week, but I decided to open up to a more holistic approach and it’s really helped me.”
She and her family recently adopted Bailey, a wire-haired fox terrier that Noonan jokes is their “COVID puppy,” and she relishes every opportunity to connect and have fun with longtime friends.
Noonan also joined a support group organized by the Colorectal Cancer Alliance, through which she made dear friends, as well as the Sights and Insights therapeutic art classes. For more than two years she has participated in a creative writing class through UCHealth Supportive Oncology.
Recently a writing prompt was “Actions to be happy about” and Noonan wrote:
Having a thoughtful and loving husband who constantly gives of himself.
Staying positive during the darkest of times by taking my fears head-on.
Being able to depend on my kids, who have turned into responsible adults.
Having a home, laughter, and comfort all about.
Having enough to share and to give.
Life…being able to get up in the morning to live another day.
“I have two children,” she says. “My son is 20 and my 18-year-old daughter is graduating from high school soon. I’ve had my days where I’m like, ‘Am I going to be here to see her graduate?’ especially after I found out it had spread to my lungs. But even when things have felt their worst, I’ve learned that I have amazing support and that I’m strong enough to get through. My son’s a junior at Metro and I’m going to see him graduate, I’m going to have time with my wonderful husband. I’m going to enjoy every moment I can of living life.”