For seven months, Tori Riley of O’Fallon had excruciating abdominal pains that her doctors attributed to acid reflux, because she was just 24 years old.
It wasn’t until her mother, Lisa Medders, 49, of O’Fallon, demanded that Tori get an ultrasound that the cancer was discovered. The ultrasound found eight tumors in her liver, which were a result of cancer in her colon.
Tori was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer and given four to six months to live. “It was very shocking when she was diagnosed,” Medders said.
Tori fought hard and long, but ultimately died in August 2014 at the age of 26.
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As a result of Tori’s death, her mother is determined to raise colon cancer awareness and has created the Team Tori Foundation.
“After I lost her, I decided I had to do something to help other people so I set up the foundation to bring awareness, education and tangible help for other colon cancer patients,” Medders said. “Tori had no help outside of donations and family.”
The foundation hasn’t helped any colon cancer patients yet, but Medders hopes that will change soon as the foundation receives more donations.
Medders also wants to educate youths about colon cancer and work to change the medical view that 50 is the screening age.
“We have to talk about it. We have to talk about our butts,” Medders said. “Parents need to talk about it with their young adults.”
She hopes to make Tori’s legacy bigger than her death.
“She was bigger than life,” Medders said. “She was an example of someone who lived their life to the fullest. She was a beautiful person inside and out.”
Tori opted to not have surgery, at the recommendation of her oncologist, her mother said, and Tori started chemotherapy immediately.
After several cycles of chemotherapy, Medders took Tori to an alternative treatment center in Georgia. “We had amazing results there,” she said.
After that, Medders said, “Tori lived a really good life for a while. She was doing really well.”
After six or seven months, the tumors started to grow again.
The cancer then metastasized to Tori’s bones, and she endured radiation to the bone lesions, because she was determined to fight it, her mother said.
Toward the end, Tori was in a wheelchair because she couldn’t walk. “For her, that was devastating, she was so independent,” Medders said.
Tori died in Medders arms on Aug. 24 surrounded by other family members and friends. “I told her it was OK for her to let go,” Medders said.
Tori stopped breathing and then her heart stopped, Medders recalled through tears. She remembered singing “You Are My Sunshine” to her, which was their song.
“She was a blessing. She was a great girl,” Medders said. “She was so loved by her school and her community...She had so many friends.”
A friend’s perspective
One of Tori’s best friends, Brianna Hayes, 22, of Collinsville, described Tori as “very independent” and “stubborn.
“Everything was her way,” Hayes said. “She did what she wanted and did what was best for her.”
Hayes met Tori at the Paul Mitchell Hair Academy in St. Louis in 2011. “We became a lot closer after she got sick,” Hayes said.
All the way through her treatment, Hayes said Tori stayed true to herself.
“She wanted to have a normal life for as long as she could,” Hayes said. “She hated people knowing she was sick.”
What bothered Tori the most was losing her hair, according to her friend. “Losing that just crushed her,” Hayes said. “Even though, we got her a wig to look exactly like her hair.”
Through Tori’s two year battle with cancer, Tori never complained, her friend said, even when her pain was at a 10.
“She was amazing. I don’t know how she did it,” Hayes said. “She wouldn’t accept it...she fought, fought, fought...she never gave up.”
High school scholarship
In Tori’s memory, the Team Tori Foundation will award a $1,000 scholarship to an O’Fallon High School student who’s life has been impacted by colon cancer.
Tori graduated from OTHS in 2006. She was voted “biggest flirt” in her senior class. “She was so friendly to everyone,” Medders said.
Students applying for the scholarship will need to write an essay about how colon cancer has affected them.
Medders and two other foundation board members will read the essays and select a scholarship winner.
Local expert weighs in
Dr. Susan Laduzinsky, a radiation oncologist at the Cancer Treatment Center in Swansea, said colon cancer is more common in patients older than 50 — which makes up 90 percent of all colon cancer cases.
“It would be very rare,” Laduzinsky said for a young adult like Tori to get diagnosed with colon cancer.
However, she said doctors are seeing “more” cases of colon cancer in patients younger than 50 years old.
The biggest risk factor for younger patients is family history.
“If people have a higher risk factor, they are recommending earlier colonoscopies,” Laduzinsky said.
Someone with a history of colon cancer should get a colonoscopy 10 years prior to when that family developed the colon cancer, she said.
A colonoscopy is the best method to detect colon cancer, according to Laduzinsky. In the “olden days,” she said doctors just looked for blood in the stool or tested the stool for blood.
A method currently being researched involves looking for cancer cells or genes in the stool, Laduzinsky said.
The corrective treatment for colon cancer is surgery followed by chemotherapy, she said.
“In the more advanced stages of colon cancer, radiation therapy and chemotherapy get involved if the cancer gets lower down in the rectum and anal area,” Laduzinsky explained.
She believes the decrease in the incidents of people over 50 getting colon cancer can be directly attributed to colonoscopies and having polyps found in the colon removed.
“We never discussed colon cancer,” Medders said. “I don’t know if I ever talked to anyone about colon cancer.”