SCV resident recalls her journey overcoming colorectal cancer
Santa Clarita resident Melissa Ursini would wake up every day soon after her husband, Dominick, left for his job as an electrician at 4 a.m.
Ursini, 37, would gather herself out of bed and prepare for her morning routine, which consisted of indoor cycling, showering, taking some time for herself before waking up her 7-year-old daughter, Regan. Together, they would eat breakfast and prepare for their day.
Regan would get ready for school and Ursini would prepare for her day at work at Sevenstep, where she serves as a recruitment business partner. This was Ursini’s life: active and healthy, caring for her family and working hard at her career.
“Then one day I had lower abdominal pain shooting straight across my stomach, left to right. It felt like labor pains. It would ease and then intensify,” Ursini said.
Ursini, who is now 38, said her abdominal pain began January 2021. In the beginning, she didn’t know what the issue was – until months later when she was diagnosed with colorectal cancer.
“On one day, I was in pain for six hours. The pain would go away for a day or sometimes a week. And each time I would feel pain, it would happen near my period,” Ursini said. “But eventually, the pain began to last longer and came more frequently.”
She assumed her abdominal pain had something to do with her period or with her reproductive organs. Ursini scheduled a visit with her gynecologist and her primary care physician.
Her doctors ran various tests including pap smears, x-rays, blood tests and ultrasounds to examine her bladder and ovaries.
“Everything seemed fine,” Ursini said.
According to Ursini, her doctors didn’t find anything wrong, yet her pain continued and she got worse. She began to experience loss of appetite, she struggled with her bowel movements and she developed a bulge near her lower abdomen.
Ursini went back to her doctors a few more times and also visited the emergency room at one point because her symptoms were intense. Doctors administered more exams and the results would come back normal.
In July 2021, she would visit the E.R. again after vomiting brown bile. She was scared about what was happening to her.
According to Ursini, a family member, who worked at a hospital, encouraged her to come to their facility. On arrival, Ursini was given a CT scan.
“After the scan, the doctors told me they’d give me the results within 30 minutes to an hour,” Ursini said. “In 10 minutes, the doctor came to tell me I had an obstruction due to a tumor.”
“I had an obstruction and I didn’t process that I had a tumor. I had an obstruction. I don’t have a tumor.”
Ursini’s doctors diagnosed her with stage 2 colorectal cancer.
Immediately, she was scheduled for surgery. Ursini had 7 inches of her intestines removed and began chemotherapy at the City of Hope.
Ursini first saw Dr. Marwan Fakih at the City of Hope in Duarte to discuss her various options for treatment. She decided on chemotherapy infusions for two hours every three weeks, and to do it closer to home at the City of Hope in Santa Clarita with Dr. George Hajjar overseeing her process.
“I was shocked. It never crossed my mind that I would have colon cancer,” Ursini said.
Hajjar, who will be a six-year medical oncologist and hematologist with the City of Hope in Santa Clarita in September, said colorectal cancer is more common in the elderly, yet throughout the years more adults younger than 50 are coming in with colorectal cancer.
“Since the mid 1990s there’s been a 2% increase each year of people less than 50 diagnosed with colorectal cancer,” Hajjar said.
According to Hajjar, medical researchers have yet to find a direct cause as to why they are seeing adults younger than 50 come in with colorectal cancer. However, he thinks there are a number of factors that can affect one’s likelihood of getting colorectal cancer such as genetics and diet.
Ursini has been cancer-free since January and had a double celebration with her husband – for her overcoming cancer and their 10-year anniversary of marriage.
“Things happen for a reason,” Ursini said. “Things fell in place for me to get treated. It really sucked, but in the end, I underwent a great treatment.”
Ursini said she was grateful for Hajjar and the staff at City of Hope for creating a warm and comfortable environment each time she went for chemotherapy infusions. The people made her treatment a positive experience and encouraged her to continue with them, she added.
“We have a tough job,” Hajjar said. “We see people who are diagnosed with cancer and when we hear the word ‘cancer,’ there’s panic. Our patients began to think surgeries, death. We need to give our patients comfort, so they are able to get their treatments.”
Colorectal cancer changed Ursini’s life and affected her loved ones.
“When I tell my story she [Regan] gravitates toward me. She comes and wraps her arms around me seeking reassurement, comfort,” Ursini said.
Ursini said throughout her battle with cancer, Dominick, her mother, her friends, doctors and City of Hope staff were an amazing support system.
“This [battle with cancer] was a small chapter in Melissa’s book,” Ursini said. “There is so much more that comes after.”
Looking back at Ursini’s journey, Hajjar said she did everything right.
“She did the right thing by going to see multiple health care professionals,” Hajjar said. “Colorectal cancer can happen to anybody.”
Hajjar said the average person should get screened for colorectal cancer at the age of 45, and for individuals who may have a genetic disposition to get screened sooner.
“Don’t ignore your symptoms. We at the City of Hope are here to help you and get you treatment,” Hajjar said.
Ursini’s advice for people who stop to listen to her story: “Get checked.”
“Pay attention to your body,” she said. “If one test doesn’t answer a question take another.”