At 38 years old Jessica Martin, PhD, was busy raising a young family, advancing in a career she loved, volunteering regularly and spending weekends enjoying Colorado’s mountains. But when she came down with an unexpected illness that she could not seem to shake, Jessica knew something was wrong.
“I felt like I had the stomach flu and it was not going away,” she says. “My primary care doctor seemed unconcerned but gave me the name of a GI specialist. After a few weeks, I visited that specialist, who misdiagnosed me with a form of irritable bowel syndrome. He told me to try and gluten-free diet and be patient – that it might take up to 6 months to feel better.”
The doctor went on to tell Jessica that there was probably no need for a follow-up appointment.
But several weeks after seeing the specialist, Jessica’s symptoms were not improving. She insisted on going back to see the GI doctor.
“I’m an impatient person, but honestly, I feel thankful for that personality fault today, because it probably saved my life. At the follow-up appointment, I explained that I was feeling worse, not better and asked what else could be done. The doctor half-heartedly suggested a colonoscopy and I was like ‘yes, let’s do that right now’. I think he was taken aback by how open I was to the procedure, but I just knew something was not right,” Jessica says. “After the colonoscopy was done, before I was even really awake, the doctor came in and told me ‘you have cancer. It’s cancer.’ He was white as a sheet and obviously agitated. He had already contacted the hospital to arrange for a CT scan the same afternoon.”
On April 26, 2013, at just 38 years old, Jessica was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. The CT scan revealed that the cancer had metastasized to her liver and possibly her lungs.
“Of course, my husband and I – everyone I knew and loved! – were shocked! Colon cancer seemed like an old people’s disease, and I had been eating a healthy, mostly vegetarian, diet for decades. I exercised as often as possible and had even been a yoga instructor for a number of years,” she says. “But I did not have time to dwell on why I had received this diagnosis. Within days, I had emergency surgery to remove the original tumor, and by early May my husband and I had assembled a team at the University of Colorado Cancer Center. My medical team was optimistic and determined to be aggressive in fighting this disease.”
Jessica began chemotherapy in June of 2013, and underwent a liver resection, in which over 50% of her liver was removed, in August. She resumed chemo in the fall and by December 2013 she was declared NED (no evidence of disease).
That wonderful diagnosis did not last long. A scan in February 2014 showed new spots on her liver and lungs.
“We decided that instead of another surgery we would try a procedure called “Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy (SBRT),” says Jessica. “It would precisely target the tumors and hopefully destroy them.”
In addition to the SBRT she also completed 15 weeks of chemotherapy. In September 2014 Jessica finished her last round of radiation. A scan the following month revealed no new lesions liver, no new areas of concern, and that the SBRT treated lesions looked just right. But as the months went on new spots on her lungs developed and in January 2015 she started the SBRT treatments again.
“Although managing my disease is now currently my full time job, I am growing more confident that I can live with this disease and treat it as chronic illness for a significant period of time,” Jessica says. “When I was diagnosed in 2013 I was given a nine percent chance to still be alive in three years. Now here I am, 41 years old and looking forward to 45.”
Even better, she’s been able to celebrate three birthdays for each of her children since that diagnosis.
Thanks to the efforts of her medical team, her amazing husband and family, and her ongoing optimism, Jessica is still beating her cancer. She is now involved with the organization Fight Colorectal Cancer and is a member of their Research Advocacy Training and Support group (RATS).
“Like so many others affected by this disease, I’m working to make it history,” explains Jessica. “Thanks to my RATS training, I have even been able to get involved in ongoing efforts to improve the quality of patients’ lives, here and now, at the medical center in which I’ve placed so much trust and faith and received so very much in return.”
Jessica recently gave a talk to the University’s Palliative Care Community (UC-PCC), is helping to create a patient version of the quarterly palliative care newsletter, and is contributing her ideas as the University works to launch a new art therapy program for patients. Additionally she recently attended the tenth Annual Call-on Congress, organized by FightCRC. Jessica, along with more than 120 other advocates, received training and took to the Hill to meet with legislators to talk about bills and funding that helps prevent and treat colorectal cancer.
“No one wants to hear a cancer diagnosis, but receiving one does not mean you are going to die,” says Jessica. “Take a breath, don’t panic, and find a medical team that you trust who will work with you as a person, not just as a patient. There is always hope. Confidence in yourself, your caregivers and your medical team really does make all the difference.”