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Cancer patients often find hope and inspiration from the personal stories of others who have faced cancer.

Debbie Ontiveros Carter’s Story
Debbie Ontiveros Carter
Debbie Ontiveros Carter

Colon cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer deaths with more than 50,000 deaths each year. Debbie Ontiveros Carter has a special notoriety regarding the devastating disease—she was diagnosed with advanced and metastasized cancer at the premature age of 34. Debbie’s oncologist, Dr. Jorge Nieva, says what makes the Billings woman truly unique is her young age at diagnosis and her survival.

Suffering from recurring abdominal pain and a lingering kidney infection, Debbie’s family insisted that she come to Billings Clinic for help. She didn’t understand the root of her discomfort and her family was concerned.

After a CT scan indicated irregularities at the back of her colon, Debbie met with a gastroenterologist. While normally it would be 15 years before a colonoscopy is recommended, she requested the procedure immediately based on her family history.

“I had lost two grandpas to colon cancer. I wanted to be safe.”

Upon waking from the investigative colonoscopy, Debbie looked into her partner’s eyes and predicted the bad news.

“When I woke up -- I asked Mike if it was cancer. He started crying. I just knew.”

Debbie’s life changed on that summer day in 2008. In the course of the colonoscopy, the gastroenterologist took photographs and numerous biopsies. Ultimately, the mass in her right colon was determined to be an adenocarcinoma – an aggressive variety of cancer. In addition to the colon, her cancer had metastasized to the liver and lymph nodes. She was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer.

Within two weeks, Debbie underwent laparoscopic surgery for the resection of her right colon and the removal of the lesions on her liver. An intensive course of chemotherapy followed until March 16, 2009 – her “graduation” from chemotherapy.

Debbie shares her story of tests, surgeries, side-effects and remission with candor and, even, humor. Her voice and expression reflect a more painful experience when she recounts her chemotherapy. She said the therapy was tough and debilitating.

“You have to give it your best shot, especially if you have kids. Having been through chemotherapy, I can’t judge others who choose to not have chemo, but it saved my life.”

Emotionally, the most difficult time for Debbie was missing the daily routine of family life with her daughters and partner, Mike. She was just too sick and exhausted for events like “Muffins with Moms” at the girls’ schools.

Dr. John Gregory, Debbie’s surgeon, told her that she was “one tough cookie.” She confesses that although cancer affected her emotionally, physically, and mentally, she tried to comfort others (including seven sisters and two brothers). Several years later, Debbie still has the phone message left by her sister, Vanessa. Now in remission, she can tear up with the memory of her sister’s concern.

“She left a message that is still on my voice mail. Vanessa wanted me to stay positive in my thinking. I never once said, ‘Why me? Why is this happening?’”

Debbie’s thoughts often drift to her daughters. She is a stay-at-home mom who enjoys working on crafts with her girls. Because of her early diagnosis, her two daughters will be screened at age 24 for colon cancer.

She is unwavering about what others should do to prevent colon cancer. “If there’s a family history or if you are due for screening—you need to get it checked. The colonoscopy is the least of it. I asked for a colonoscopy. I just knew something was going on. You know your body better than anyone else.”

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