When award-winning children’s photographer Julie Newell felt a lump in her abdomen during July 2007 two weeks after the birth of her second child, Lachlan, she was of course concerned. But, because she was only 29 years old, doctors didn’t think it was anything too serious and attributed it at first to postpartum healing.
“I had two healthy babies, two healthy pregnancies,” she says. “But through all of that I had unexplainable abdominal pain.”
When other gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms arose, Julie says she was misdiagnosed with Crohn's disease. Later, when she developed a fever, her mother insisted she go for further GI testing.
Due to her age, Julie had to fight to get a colonoscopy. “I didn't fit the model for colon cancer,” she says. “They used to call it an ‘old man’s’ cancer.'”
She finally was approved for a colonoscopy, and on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2007, received the devastating results. “I was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer and operated on the next morning,” she recalls. “The surgery was very successful. They removed the original colon tumor, plus 40 lymph nodes.”
However, her ordeal was not yet over. During the surgery, five tumors also were spotted on her liver. “I did three rounds of standard chemotherapy for colon cancer, and then went to MD Anderson [Cancer Center] for my liver resection,” she says. “In January of 2008, all five tumors were removed. After that, I was given nine more rounds of adjuvant chemotherapy.”
In addition to traditional Western medicine, hopes, prayers and Eastern medicine also were incorporated into her treatment plan.
Julie’s cancer journey, from first being diagnosed to receiving her last treatment, encompassed nine long and difficult months. Although she admits it was the hardest thing she's ever endured, she was grateful to be given her life back.
“I couldn’t have done it without the support of my family and friends,” she says. “My husband, Joey, was my rock. My mom and his mom took turns helping me with the baby and with Estelle, our almost 2-year-old daughter. My best friend came to cook and help out my family, and another friend picked me up every Friday to take me to chemotherapy. Other friends sat with me during chemotherapy if my mom couldn't be there.”
She’s also grateful that before chemotherapy, she underwent fertility preservation. Years later, their now 8-year-old daughter, Vera, would be born.
Three and a half years ago, Julie and her family moved to Nashville from Chicago. “We chose to come here to slow down and focus on raising our children in a family-focused environment,” she says. In addition to her husband and three children, their family includes four adorable fur babies.
Today, Julie is 14 years cancer free, and is now on what’s called surveillance. “Typically, people who make it 10 years without a recurrence of colon cancer are considered cured,’’ she says. “Every year for 10 years I had to have a colonoscopy, and then after that, I was supposed to have one two years later.”
Due to the pandemic, she ended up having to wait almost three years. “That gave me a bit of a scare, but I feel like things work out in ways they’re supposed to. That was the first colonoscopy I've ever had where they removed polyps. All of them were precancerous, and my life was saved once again. They told me if I had come the year before they may not have been able to find them all because they would have been too small. I would probably then have been told I wouldn’t need another one for five years.”
She’s very open about sharing her story and helping others through "City Mom Goes South," her Instagram page. “People from all over the world reach out to me who either have someone they love going through colon cancer, or have colon cancer themselves. They say, ‘You make me believe that this isn't a death sentence.’”
Julie’s advice to others: “If something doesn’t feel right in your GI tract, you need to find a GI doctor who will fight for you to help you get a colonoscopy. For me, colonoscopies have truly been lifesaving.”
Note that March is Colonoscopy Awareness Month. To find out more about colon cancer and its prevention, go to Cancer.org/Cancer/Colon-Rectal-Cancer.html.