Loving life, free from colorectal cancer

Yes, there were warning signs. But when you’re 34 years old and seemingly healthy, they were easy to ignore. Internal gassiness and blood in the stool were perhaps explainable by hemorrhoids related to a previous pregnancy, and by everyday stress.

That’s what Jessica Gerst of Cedar Rapids thought at the time. Then her sister in Arizona insisted she see a doctor. “My sister had watched Oprah do a show on this topic, about blood in the stool,” Jessica says. “She was very concerned.” A gastroenterologist scheduled a colonoscopy, suggesting it might be gluten intolerance. When Jessica awoke from the anesthesia, her husband was sitting at her bedside with his head in his hands. “What’s going on?” Jessica asked. The answer was shocking: Colorectal cancer.

Stunned, Jessica tried to absorb the news. Her daughter quickly came to mind. “I thought, ‘She’s only two! What will happen to her if I’m gone?’” Everything from that point forward happened in a whirlwind. Jessica was referred to a surgeon who wanted to operate right away.

“Fortunately, I had my family thinking for me,” Jessica says. “You really need other people in a situation like this because you tend to accept everything you’re told. We weren’t real comfortable with the surgeon. There was never any mention of seeing an oncologist (a cancer specialist).”

Jessica’s father finally asked about a second opinion. That’s how Jessica met James Howe, MD, a surgical oncologist within the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. “This was the best thing we could have done,” Jessica says. “Right away I noticed a difference. Dr. Howe was so friendly and confident that they could take care of it. I felt a huge sigh of relief! At an academic medical center, everything is taken care of under one roof by one team of expert doctors.”

Surgery would not be the first order of business, Howe explained. Instead, the UI cancer team would start by shrinking the tumor with chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Better yet, Jessica could voluntarily join a UI research trial in which she would randomly receive these treatments either by traditional infusion therapy or in pill form (happily, she says, she received the pill). Surgery was the last step.

Besides Howe, Jessica’s physician team included John Buatti, MD, a world-renowned expert in radiation oncology. “Drs. Howe and Buatti were always on the same page, communicating back and forth,” Jessica says. “I was very impressed with the lengths they went to in making sure that all cancer patients are treated in this manner.”

Jessica completed her treatment regimen four years ago. Today she is cancer-free. Her daughter is now six years old and happy to have a mom at her side. Jessica is enjoying life more than ever. Tears well in her eyes when she talks about all the family, friends, and health care providers who helped her survive. “A lot of great people made this possible, from the receptionists in the radiation center, the techs that draw blood, and the valets, all the way to the doctors and nurses who oversaw the treatment,” she says. “Everyone worked together to make a challenging experience tolerable.”

Colonoscopy screenings help save lives

Colonoscopies provide the best available screening for colorectal cancer, says John Cromwell, MD, co-director of the UI Clifton Center for Digestive Diseases at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. “It’s the best test because it is the most accurate and polyps can be removed during the procedure,” he says. “It should be done as a screening exam in patients at risk before they develop symptoms.” For more information about cancer risks or concerns, contact the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center at 800-237-1225.

Generally, colonoscopies are for:

  • Those with a family or personal history of colon polyps or colon cancer
  • Everyone age 50 or older
  • Anyone with suspicious symptoms

Signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Constant tiredness
  • Abdominal pains (gas pains, bloating, fullness)
  • Blood in the stool
  • Change in bowel habits

Risk factors

  • Lack of physical activity
  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol
  • Family history of colon polyps or cancer
  • Inflammatory bowel disease