Colon cancer diagnosis shocks 43-year-old mom

A mom is holding hands with two young daughters and running across a field.


Jen can watch her kids grow after undergoing surgery and chemotherapy for advanced colon cancer.


Digestive health problems were nothing new for Jen*, a lifelong Norwalk, Connecticut, resident — she dealt with acid reflux and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) for years. However, she never expected to have colon cancer. She also never expected routine bloodwork would lead to the discovery. She was only 43 years old at the time, and it was the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Years of digestive health problems


Jen had dealt with digestive and stomach issues since she was in her 20s.


“My stomach issues seemed to flare up when I was under stress,” Jen said. “My symptoms got worse in my 30s. I was married with two young kids, working full-time and volunteering at my kids’ school; I had a lot going on,” Jen said.


“I always had a stomachache and would run to the bathroom 30 minutes after eating every meal. It was my normal,” Jen said.


Jen saw her primary care provider for an annual physical and routine bloodwork. She was not too concerned when the bloodwork showed she was anemic because she figured it was IBS-related. Anemia can happen from blood loss. Jen’s doctor thought she might be bleeding from her gastrointestinal tract and recommended she see a gastroenterologist. Good thing she did.



Colonoscopy to investigate digestive health problems


Jen went to see Dr. Reid Hopkins, a gastroenterologist at Nuvance Health Medical Practice Gastroenterology Norwalk.


“Dr. Hopkins was fabulous. He tested me for a bunch of things, including celiac disease. All the tests were normal,” Jen said. “So, he suggested I have a colonoscopy and endoscopy.”



Gastroenterologists perform colonoscopies to see inside the colon and endoscopies to see inside the esophagus, stomach and part of the small intestine. 



Jen had the procedures in July 2020 with COVID-19 spreading across the state. Due to COVID-19 safety precautions, her husband could not accompany her to the endoscopy suite.


Surprise colon cancer diagnosis


“I saw Dr. Hopkins as soon as I woke up. He looked at me and said, ‘I am really sorry, you have colon cancer,’ ” Jen said. “I said, ‘What?!’


“He repeated it, and even though I was groggy from the anesthesia, it started to sink in,” Jen said. “I was stunned, terrified and started shaking.”


Cancer was not on Jen’s radar at all. She had no family history. Other than the stomach issues, she was healthy and took care of herself.



“I was inconsolable and just wanted my husband,” Jen said. “The nursing staff were phenomenal. They let my husband visit and helped watch my kids because everyone was in the car waiting for me.”


Jen had to complete a bowel prep for the colonoscopy and promised her kids they would go to their favorite spot for bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches after the procedure.


In such a mom move, she held it together and made good on that promise.


As soon as they got home, a scheduler from Norwalk Hospital called her to schedule a CT scan for the following morning. Soon after the CT scan, Dr. Hopkins called Jen to tell her the cancer did not look like it had spread to other parts of the body, but she had two enlarged lymph nodes around the tumor.


Surgery to treat colon cancer


Jen had advanced stage colon cancer.


She next saw Dr. James McClane, a colorectal surgeon at Norwalk Hospital. Jen had surgery in August 2020. 


Dr. McClane performed colectomy surgery to remove the cancerous tumor and then reattach the colon to restore normal bowel function. He needed to remove a large chunk of Jen’s colon due to the size of the cancer and to ensure clear margins. He also removed 21 lymph nodes, and two were cancerous.


“Dr. McClane said my colon resection was inches away from requiring a colostomy bag. I was extremely happy about that,” Jen said.


If the surgeon cannot reconnect the colon, they need to connect a colostomy bag to the outside of the abdomen through a stoma so the body can remove waste from the digestive tract.



Jen had stage 3B colon cancer. The tumor was high up in the intestines, just under the rib cage, which is likely why she did not have blood in the stool, a classic sign of colon cancer.



Chemotherapy to treat colon cancer


Jen needed chemotherapy because of the advanced stage of cancer. 


“It was a hard pill to swallow to hear I would need chemotherapy,” Jen said. 


In September 2020, Jen began chemotherapy treatment under the care of Dr. Nicole Carreau, a medical oncologist at the Whittingham Cancer Center at Norwalk Hospital. She had treatments every two weeks for six months.


“I would see Dr. Carreau first, go to the infusion area at 9 a.m. and leave around 1:30 p.m. I left with a chemo delivery system connected to me and went back later in the day to have it removed,” Jen explained. 


“Chemo is lifesaving, but holy moly it is rough,” Jen said. 


“However, it was not nearly as bad as I thought it would be, which I would like others going through it to know,” Jen said. “They have made advances in chemo, and there are many ways to manage side effects. It is important to be open with your oncologist about how you are feeling so they can help you. In my case, Dr. Carreau was fantastic,” Jen said.



“I was worried about losing my hair and being violently ill, but neither of those things happened,” Jen said.


“The most difficult side effect was neuropathy in my hands in feet, which caused extreme cold sensitivity. I was making my kids lunch, grabbed butter from the refrigerator and dropped it immediately,” Jen remembered.



Recovery after surgery for colon cancer


All Jen wanted was to be able to watch her kids grow up and be there for them. Since completing chemotherapy in March 2021, she has had no evidence of disease (N.E.D.) status, which is a cancer term that means no detectable cancer.


She has been able to live a normal life without dietary restrictions from the surgery despite so much of her colon being removed. 


Jen loves spending time with her kids, and they especially enjoy shopping together. 


Recovering from surgery in the hospital and chemo infusions were especially tough because Jen was mostly alone due to COVID-19 protocols. However, Jen found a positive aspect of having cancer during the pandemic — sharing she had cancer on her terms.


“My biggest struggle was trying to figure out the right thing for my kids,” Jen said. “I did not want my young kids to go to bed thinking their mom was going to die; I did not want to do that to them. My husband and I decided to tell them, ‘Mommy is getting medicine for her stomach issues,’ which they already knew about.”


Jen only shared she had cancer with a small group of people. She is sharing her experience now to help others.


In addition to being open with your doctors, Jen said it is important to be open with your family and friends about what you need if you are dealing with cancer.


“Watching my family and friends deal with what I was going through was hard. I used to pick myself up before people visited so they did not worry as much. But that was hard, because cancer is a lot to deal with, emotionally and physically,” Jen said.


“For anyone going through cancer, it is OK to ask for help. People are around and want to help but do not know what to do. You can say, ‘I need, X, Y and Z,’ and they will do it!” Jen said.



“My husband, family and friends gave me the strength to get through it. I also surprised myself with my ability to get through it,” Jen said. 


“I also could not have done any of it without the support of my doctors. They are great, compassionate doctors,” Jen said. “Anyone in our community going through cancer should know the many resources available at Norwalk Hospital. I cannot say enough about the oncology department; everyone went above and beyond for me.”



*The patient’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.


Disclaimer: Outcomes from cancer vary from person to person. No individual results should be seen as typical.