Wenora Johnson is a stage III colon cancer survivor, advocate, and member of Fight Colorectal Cancer’s Research Advocacy Training and Support (RATS) program. She resides in Joliet, Illinois.
First Him, Now Me
I never knew it would happen to me. I knew the trials and tribulations that came along with the diagnosis; the suffering, many office visits, and the fight to survive. But in January of 2010, I buried my spouse who passed away from pancreatic cancer.
And just when I thought it couldn’t get worse, cancer struck again. This time, it was me who received the diagnosis.
In 2011 at the age of 45, I went to see my family doctor for my yearly physical. I considered myself a very healthy person – a military reservist who regularly exercised and took my health very seriously. I always go to my doctor for my annual exam, and with much pride received a clean bill of health year after year.
That year I was asked to do something in addition to my regular exam: a fecal immunochemical test (FIT). My doctor stressed the importance of this minor test, explaining that many of his patients dismiss it altogether. Because I was in my early forties and he had made such a big deal about it, I took the test and returned it, thinking “what’s the worst that could happen?” A few days later, I received a phone call. My doctor was slightly concerned by the test’s findings, which included traces of microscopic blood, and referred me to a gastroenterologist.
My gastroenterologist was very reassuring and felt the same way I did: I was an otherwise healthy and active 45-year-old, and this could be nothing serious. She performed a colonoscopy and found a blockage, so a minor laparoscopic surgery was scheduled to see what was really going on. Still, I was expecting nothing major. This was just a road bump in my otherwise smooth and healthy life.
The Surprise of a Lifetime (…and Not in a Good Way)
Much to my surprise, I awoke from the surgery with a 6-inch incision in the middle of my stomach and a portion of my colon removed. My doctor explained that I had a very large tumor, which was later confirmed to be cancerous, and I was diagnosed with stage IIIb colon cancer. Even more than the diagnosis, I was shocked to find out that it was a slow-growing cancer and had likely been progressing for 15 years! Up to that point, I had no signs or symptoms whatsoever. The FIT saved my life.
Based on my experience caring for my late husband, I knew what came next. I completed three months of chemotherapy and I am here today, seven years later, cancer-free.
Knowledge is Power
Unfortunately, that’s not the last time cancer played a role in my life. In 2016, a genetic test confirmed I have Lynch Syndrome, meaning I have a higher risk of other types of cancers, including endometrial, ovarian, breast, stomach, and others. A biopsy confirmed that I actually had endometrial cancer and thankfully surgery was curative, and also preventative for other types of cancer. Just one year later, in 2017, I was diagnosed with Basal Cell Carcinoma and couldn’t believe cancer was striking again. Thankfully, surgery successfully removed this cancer as well, and I now have no evidence of disease. Having Lynch Syndrome means I will continue to be at higher risk for cancer and will have to pay close attention to my body, in addition to continuing to live a healthy lifestyle. One thing is for sure, I’m not afraid of what my future holds. Through Fight CRC I’ve learned about colorectal cancer treatment options and clinical trials, which empowers me and makes me feel in control of whatever happens next. I’m ready for the next battle – should one come – and so is my new husband, who also supports me in this journey!
Getting Involved with Fight CRC
After my experience with colorectal cancer, jumping into advocacy was a natural next step for me. I wanted to shout from the rooftops, “Hey, get screened, because it can save your life!” This desire grew even more once my younger brother was diagnosed with stage IIIc colon cancer in 2017.
As I looked online for the latest information on colorectal cancer research, statistics, and survival rates, Fight CRC became my favorite resource. They were there in my quest to know more about this disease, and I wanted to know what I could do to get involved and begin raising awareness.
Fight CRC’s website has a place where you can share your story publicly on their blog, and that’s exactly the kind of thing I was looking for. I wrote about my story of survival and it was posted for everyone to read. I used my story on their blog to actively raise awareness and then volunteered at the Fight CRC booth during the ASCO conference in Chicago, where I had an opportunity to talk with Fight CRC staff, oncologists, survivors, and other advocates. That was just the beginning. Today, I continue to be an active volunteer and research advocate with Fight CRC, and the connection has been lifesaving!
Joining the RATS (Research Advocacy Training and Support) Program
As a Fight CRC volunteer, I found out that applications for the RATS program were being accepted and was eager to apply. I couldn’t wait to begin advocating and learning more about colorectal cancer research. The acronym “RATS” stands for Research Advocacy Training and Support, and I think I’ve found my calling here. I’ve been a member of the RATS program for four years now and I’ve had the opportunity to fulfill some of my bucket list items, including visiting pharmaceutical and research labs and viewing actual HeLa cells – for me an opportunity of a lifetime.
Research Translates to Real Life Options
Research plays a very significant role in my life now. It means if I receive another cancer diagnosis, I have more options than chemotherapy (depending on the diagnosis). I’m armed with knowledge about newer treatment options, such as immunotherapy and combination therapy, that will provide me with a better quality of life. My plan is to not just survive, but to THRIVE!
You are Not Alone!
My advice for other survivors is to make sure you have a strong support group, which you can find through Fight CRC. Even if you can’t have immediate family members or friends join you at doctors’ appointments and chemo sessions, I strongly encourage you to connect with other survivors and caregivers, become your own advocate, and continue living your life to the fullest. Never forget that there are many individuals working on your behalf to help you fight this disease. You are not alone!