A Colon Cancer Survivor's Journey
contributed by Shelley Zalewski
"They called me the 'Zumba Lady:'" Jennifer Watson’s cancer journey illustrates the importance of advocating for your health and partnering with a care team you trust
Jennifer Watson had always been very active.
“I just took for granted that I’d always have enough energy for anything and everything I wanted to do,” says Watson, who lives in East Lansing, Michigan. That included hitting a “boot camp” exercise class six times a week.
After having no trouble keeping up with the class for two years, Watson hit a wall in the summer of 2016 when, at age 59, she became too tired to make it through the half-hour session. One Saturday, she headed to a local urgent care clinic instead of to the class.
“I was exhausted, and my heart was racing,” she recalls. Unable to diagnose the problem, the clinic sent her to a nearby hospital.
After a day-long battery of tests, Watson was diagnosed with anemia, likely the result of internal bleeding. A colonoscopy and CT scan suggested the presence of cancer. In late July, she had a portion of her colon removed, which confirmed early stage colon cancer.
The tumor had grown into tissue around the colon, but had not spread to adjacent lymph nodes or nearby organs. At that stage, the standard of care is regular monitoring for signs of growth or spread. So Watson saw her oncologist every three months. In June 2017, imaging indicated a spot on her liver. Her oncologist believed it was inflammation, not cancer.
A year later, a scan revealed the spot was indeed cancer that had metastasized to the liver. A difficult liver resection followed.
“The procedure was very painful,” she recalls. “It was an anxious time for me, a real low point. I had 33 staples in my stomach. I spent six days in the hospital. And I learned my cancer had advanced to stage 4.”
As Watson recovered, she and her family struggled with the direction of her cancer treatment.
“We began to question whether we were with the right care team,” she explains. The surgeon and the oncologist seemed to disagree about both her treatment to date and her future prognosis. “Clearly, my doctors were not on the same page.”
Watson’s daughter researched other options, and the family sought treatment from the Rogel Cancer Center, at its Brighton Center for Specialty Care location.
“Michigan Medicine and the Rogel Cancer Center have a great reputation,” notes Watson. “When we learned we could access that level of care in Brighton -- just an hour’s drive from our home -- in a brand new facility with the latest imaging equipment, we felt confident about making the change.”
In mid-September 2018 Watson met with John C. Krauss, M.D., medical director of the Multidisciplinary Colorectal Cancer Clinic, and his team in Brighton. After a thorough assessment, they confirmed the diagnosis.
“While every advanced cancer is life-threatening, several aspects of Jennifer’s prognosis gave us reason for optimism,” says Krauss. “Rather than cancer that had spread all over the body, hers recurred in one place and was surgically removed, so she started chemotherapy without symptoms from her cancer. Jennifer hadn’t previously received chemotherapy, so if there were any additional cancer cells in the liver or other organs, they would be more responsive to curative chemotherapy. Finally, Jennifer is one of the most active patients I have seen, and she is invested in returning to full activity after the setback of surgery and chemotherapy.”
In early October, Watson began chemotherapy at the Brighton center. The standard of care for advanced metastatic colon cancer is a combination of drugs called FOLFOX, an abbreviation for folinic acid, fluorouracil and oxaliplatin.
FOLFOX is delivered every other week for 12 weeks. During treatment weeks, Watson would receive chemo at Brighton on Tuesday, and go home with a fanny pack that continued to deliver the drugs until Thursday, when a contract nurse would come to disconnect the pack.
True to form, Watson was anxious to get back to her active lifestyle as soon as possible, even during chemotherapy.
“I couldn’t stand just sitting around,” she remembers. “On the off weeks, Dr. Krauss said it was OK to return to work, and to exercise in moderation, which for me meant regular walks and a Zumba dance/exercise class after work. At the clinic, they called me ‘the Zumba lady.’”
Midway through treatment, as the chemotherapy built up in her system, Watson found it too difficult to exercise, and at times even to finish a day at work.
“I was very tired, and I developed neuropathy,” she explains. “It began with numbness and tingling in my fingers, and eventually impacted both my hands and my feet. At first, exercise gave me some relief, but eventually, I reached a point where I couldn’t comb my hair or button my shirt.” To help manage her symptoms, Krauss adjusted her medications.
Watson completed treatment in March 2019. Since then, scans have continued to show no evidence of disease.
With chemotherapy behind her, Watson turned her attention to reclaiming her overall wellness. “When I had to stop exercising, I gained weight,” she says, “so I jumped right back to it as soon as I could.” She sought help from a local wellness consultant and cancer survivor, who coached her through a lifestyle overhaul including not only exercise, but nutrition, personal care and much more.
“I’ve made some major changes to my life,” says Watson. “I’m making smarter choices about what I eat and the products I use on my body and in my home, and I devote more time to self-care. And of course, I’m more committed than ever to staying physically active. I’ve lost 20 pounds and I feel terrific.”
From the first consultation in Brighton, Watson and her family were impressed with the Rogel team, the Michigan Medicine Brighton facility, and the approach to her treatment and follow-up. “They were both realistic about my diagnosis and optimistic about my treatment plan. Right away that helped us feel more hopeful about the future,” she recalls.
“For this type and stage of cancer, we delivered the same chemotherapy treatment Jennifer would have received at another center,” says Krauss. “What I think sets us apart is the trust we build with our patients.”
Krauss cites the Rogel Cancer Center’s National Cancer Institute comprehensive cancer center designation, which encompasses cancer basic science research, cancer clinical trials research and population health research. Furthermore, Rogel is a founding member of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, which maintains treatment guidelines for physicians and patient-oriented educational materials. These designations, along with nationally recognized scholarship, reflect the center’s mission of improving cancer outcomes for each patient.
“Our providers help write treatment guidelines, and we’re on the front lines in research,” Krauss explains. “That means patients can trust they’ll have access to the latest advances.”
But that’s only part of the picture. “Expertise may make us worthy of trust,” he continues, “but good communication and an abundance of compassion are how we build real partnerships with our patients.
“You couldn’t ask for a better patient partner than Jennifer Watson,” he adds. “She is very engaged and proactive. She worked so hard to stay active during treatment, and she continues to put in the effort to maintain the good habits that will lower her future cancer risk. She’s a real inspiration.”