• Cancer

    Sally Blackwell ‘no longer on the sidelines’ after life-changing surgery for rectal cancer

Sally Blackwell with her husband, Christopher Blackwell.

Sally Blackwell was pregnant with her second child when she began noticing symptoms she initially brushed off as nothing.

She was experiencing constipation. She wasn't gaining weight during the pregnancy. She figured the lack of weight gain had to be because she wasn't doing the daily Chick-fil-A runs she did during her first pregnancy.

It wasn't until after her daughter was born in May 2021 that the symptoms became so severe they were impossible to ignore any longer.

She had a distended abdomen, "pencil-thin stools," and was in so much pain she found it difficult to sit.

She felt an abnormal growth and was told it was probably hemorrhoids by one physician. She saw another physician when the pain became unbearable and was told the same thing.

By this time, Blackwell says she was unable to eat much and her energy levels were dipping, and that wasn't a good thing with an infant at home. She began to feel desperate and scheduled an appointment with a local colorectal surgeon.

That's when she learned what she wasn't prepared to hear. She had a 5-centimeter mass that was later confirmed to be stage 3 rectal cancer.

She was 33.

"As soon as I learned about the tumor, I knew I wanted to be treated at Mayo Clinic," Blackwell says.

Her experience receiving cancer care at Mayo Clinic in Florida was so positive she decided she wanted to be a part of the organization.

Now a Mayo Clinic social worker, Blackwell shares more about her healthcare journey with In the Loop and what inspired her to join the Mayo team:

When did you come to Mayo Clinic for care?

At the time, I was working at another area hospital. I had a friend, Samantha Inabinett, who I used to work with and knew I could confide in, who happened to work at Mayo Clinic in the GI Oncology clinic. I remember reaching out to her via text, and she immediately said, "I am here for you for whatever you need."

In a serendipitous turn of events, I had also been in a support group online of moms with children. Through that group, I made friends with another mom, Natasha, who also happened to be in the GI Oncology department at Mayo Clinic at that time. I reached out to her as well, and she also immediately flooded me with the support and knowledge I needed. They helped me navigate the Mayo system to get appointments set up.

On Nov. 15, 2021, I met Dr. Jeremy Jones in Oncology. Quickly, MRIs, CTs and bloodwork were taken to confirm my diagnosis. On Nov. 18, 2021, I had my first chemotherapy treatment. 

My treatment plan started with a few months of chemotherapy, followed by radiation and then a life-changing surgery including an abdominoperineal resection (removal of the anus, rectum and distant colon), permanent colostomy and hysterectomy. 

What do you remember most about your experience at Mayo Clinic?

I remember the kindness of all the staff — from the people who greeted me when I checked in, the medical assistants who took my labs and roomed me, the housekeeping staff and all the providers. Everyone took a general interest in my health and well-being.

I remember feeling so impressed with how efficiently appointments were scheduled so that my treatments could stay on track. When your life is in the hands of someone else, it is such a reassuring feeling to know that appointments are being scheduled quickly.

I can remember coming to my appointments with questions written on paper, and nobody I met ever batted an eye. I never felt like an inconvenience.

I remember meeting with the wound care nurse, Melanie, in the Colorectal Surgery Department before having my colostomy surgery. I had a full page of the most random questions, and she indulged me in answering every single one of them.

For me, having a colostomy was going to be life-changing, and I wanted to feel prepared. I would no longer be able to pick up my children, and I wanted to make sure I embraced every moment of life I possibly could. She showed me examples of all the supplies I would be using and how to use them. She even sent me home with an ostomy bag to try out before my life-changing surgery. 

What would you like other patients who are going through a similar experience to know?

First and foremost, I want all patients and staff to know the warning signs of colorectal cancer. The more we spread awareness of the signs, the more likelihood there is to save lives.

Colorectal cancer diagnoses are on the rise, especially in young people under 50.

If you have symptoms, tell your doctor and don't be scared of a colonoscopy. The prep is no fun — I will admit that — but it is necessary for treatment, and issues can be resolved before it progresses to cancer. 

I am actively involved in many of the online colorectal cancer support groups and ostomy support groups. I want other patients to know that you are not alone. It is sometimes an isolating diagnosis to have colorectal cancer because it's taboo to talk about bowel habits.

Find your support network whenever you feel comfortable.  

What inspired you to look for work at Mayo Clinic?

I owe my whole life to Mayo Clinic. My ability to tuck my kids in bed at night, go on dates with my husband, and take long walks dreaming and planning for the future, and my ability to celebrate holidays, birthdays and milestones with my family is all because Mayo Clinic saved my life.

Sally and Christopher Blackwell, with daughters Harper and Hudson, and Harley, the pooch.

I had my life-changing surgery in April 2022 with Dr. Amit Merchea and Dr. Tri Dinh.

After I recovered from surgery and some time had passed when I was cancer-free, I had the urge to see if there were any clinical social work positions available at Mayo Clinic. To my surprise, there were. I interviewed and was offered a position.

I started in November 2022 as a social worker in the Liver Transplant department. One of my favorite parts of my role is the opportunity to work with cancer patients on their journey to remission. I also meet other people with ostomies. 

What has been your experience working at Mayo?

I have absolutely loved working at Mayo Clinic, and my personal experience has positively influenced how I relate to my patients. 

I recently joined the Disability Mayo Employee Resource Group and hope to connect further with other disabled co-workers working in healthcare. 

How does your experience as a patient influence the way you work?

As I approach the two-year cancer-free mark, it reminds me that it has been a while since I lost sleep wondering if I would be able to watch my children grow up.

It also has been a while since I had to juggle chemotherapy and radiation schedules with my work and life schedule. It has been a while since I had to hold my breath when opening my Mayo app to see my lab results. It has been a while since I counted the tiles in a treatment room. It has been a while since I got sick from treatment, had to wear gloves due to cold sensitivity from chemotherapy, or slept the whole day away.

It has been a while since cancer consumed every thought and conversation I had. It has been a while since I obsessed over recurrence rate statistics and searched the internet for other stories like mine.

Even though it has been some time, those experiences are part of who I am, and I remember them when I meet with patients at Mayo Clinic. It reminds me that while Mayo Clinic is a medical setting, a lot of life happens inside these walls and in our communities.

It is important to take care of the whole person — emotionally, spiritually, etc. — and that is why social workers are so important in the medical setting.

How has the experience influenced your future career path?

I no longer watch life happen from the sidelines. I no longer track time based on the next holiday or birthday, wondering if it will be my last. Although time continues to move forward on my cancer journey, if I close my eyes, it really does feel like yesterday.

My experience has solidified that I am committed to working at Mayo Clinic until the day I retire. Even then, hopefully, I can come back as a volunteer.

People often read about a mission for an organization and don't think about it too much. For me, "inspiring hope" is part of who I am now because Mayo Clinic inspired hope in me, and I just want to be able to do the same for others.

Learn more

Learn more about rectal cancer and find a clinical trial at Mayo Clinic.

Join the Colorectal Cancer Support Group on Mayo Clinic Connect, an online community moderated by Mayo Clinic for patients and caregivers.

This article first appeared on the Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center blog.