CANCER WARRIOR OF THE MONTH
Throughout a cancer diagnosis, our lives are challenged, interrupted, and are forever changed. C.S. Lewis said: “The truth is, of course, that what one regards as interruptions are precisely one’s life.” We proudly share the amazing spirit, attitude, and grace of our October-Cancer Warrior of the Month: Jessica Martin.
A loving wife, devoted mother, cherished daughter, and college educator in Denver, Colorado, at age-38, Jessica Martin was shocked by a stage-4 colon cancer diagnosis in April-2013. Not feeling well for several months at year’s end in 2012, she continued to push through her daily life as a full-time professor with two children (Maggie and Finn, ages 6 and 4), and many commitments to juggle with her husband (Nicholas), also working while finishing his graduate degree. With this schedule, she asked herself “Who wouldn’t feel run down?”
Persistent flu-like symptoms, diarrhea, constipation, and abdominal pain pushed Jessica to see her GP, who declared her: an “overworked mom”, while handing her the name of a G.I. doctor, “just in case”. The G.I. doctor’s prognosis was flu-induced IBS and recommended a gluten-free-high-fiber diet and patience, saying it may take 6-months to feel better, with no follow-up necessary. After 2-weeks, Jessica returned to the doctor who offhandedly suggested a colonoscopy. On April 26th, Jessica awoke from her twilight slumber to a frantic and pale doctor who delivered overwhelming and unbelievable news: “You have cancer; and it’s Stage-3 or 4.”
Jessica had Stage-IV colon cancer, with mets to the liver and lungs. She underwent emergency colon resection on May 2nd; as her primary tumor had nearly blocked her entire sigmoid colon. Followed with 8-rounds of FOLFOX, liver resection in August, and 4-more rounds of chemo, Jessica was declared NED on December 27, 2013.
February 7, 2014 scans showed a liver recurrence and lung tumor growth. New chemo of Irinotecan/Erbitux left her skin very sensitive with a terrible rash. Her hair, which she had worn long since high school, was falling out by the handfuls. Cutting her hair very short in anticipation of losing it made cancer feel very real and terrible.
There were mouth sores, bowel problems, and
low grade fevers. On the positive, the new chemo was working: the liver lesion began to shrink. Successful SBRT (Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy – targeted radiation therapy) followed, which zapped the liver tumor. October-November-2014 SBRT treatments eliminated the larger lung tumors.
By May-2015, the remaining lung spots expanded, CEA increased, and a potential new spot on her liver was found. Time to return to “Chemo-land”; this time: Xeloda and Avastin.
Stage IV cancer is “rough” and Jessica endured several complications. She named herself: “The Queen of Complications & Weird Side Effects”. A surgical incision that would not heal required installation of a “wound-vac”. An accident during a surgery stapled shut her inferior vena cava in two places (main vein that returns blood to the heart from lower extremities). Failing kidneys and edema caused 40-pounds of water weight, time in the ICU, and hospital. Edema caused agonizing lower back pain, a racing heart, inability to walk without exhaustion, and formed a dangerous abdomen-to-leg blood clot.
Top vascular and cardiologist surgeons planned a high-risk clot-removal surgery, but then…something wonderful happened. Her blood vessels expanded to take on the overflow of blood that would have traversed her IVC. Her kidneys worked overtime and in 2-1/2 days all the water drained. Looking back, Jessica believes that she would not have survived that operation.
Having a transected IVC led to several long-term complications with edema, exceedingly high heart rates, permanent Fragmin (Subcu blood thinner), pulmonary hypertension, and enlarged heart. The Oxaliplatin wreaked havoc on her bone marrow resulting in ITP: chronically low platelets. In May-2016, Jessica underwent a painful partial splenic embolization procedure in which a portion of the spleen is packed with gel foam, killing off part of the spleen and forcing platelets back into circulation; likely to be necessary every 12-18 months. Jessica’s SBRT resulted in four broken ribs, radiation pneumonitis- permanently reducing lung capacity, partially collapsed lung, and several pneumothorax. Denver altitude doesn’t help, so she lives
with an oxygen concentrator. A pre-diagnosis yoga instructor for 4-years, persistent pain and spasms prevent Jessica from exercising or even picking up her children. “This is the story of my surgeries and treatments. It’s definitely missing the most important bits – all of the blessings and love I’ve received; the way that cancer has made me a more flexible and kind person, how my husband holds me up every day and never once has complained. How my children are so accepting and kind, and my parent’s dedication to be by my side despite the pain and horror that I know they must feel watching their daughter suffer. …And how cancer strips you down and forces you to examine what really matters, and quickly, too.” – Jessica Martin
A professor at University of Colorado, Boulder, Jessica continues to teach on-line. Despite the problems, living with advanced cancer has made her a more patient and grateful person, and leads her to a more joyous existence. She says: “I’ve come to see that we all are connected, and surrounded by love and affection – we just need to open our eyes to this reality and accept that friendship, assistance, and happiness often arrive in the most unexpected of packages! Thanks to the beautiful community I’ve discovered and the strong bonds of affection that I know exists, I have great optimism for my future. I’ve been living with this disease for over 3-years, and I am committed to living long enough to watch my children grow to adulthood. I don’t wonder how it will happen – I just believe with every ounce of my being that it will.”
Jessica’s most recent June-2016 scans showed no new lesions and cavitation in the two largest lung mets. She hopes to jump on the “immunotherapy train” since trials have shown successes for MSS CRC patients. Jessica lives with optimism, heart, and courage. She is a dedicated CRC advocate and presented her story in D.C. at the annual “call on congress”.
Be inspired by Jessica Martin. Together with The Gloria Borges WunderGlo Foundation, we continue to believe, bring hope, and lend support to people in their personal cancer experiences, while working towards “the cure” for this disease. CANCER, YOUR TIME IS UP!