A 32-year-old nurse and mom stunned to find her “vague” symptoms turned out to be colon cancer is urging others to stay vigilant about their bodies and get early screening for the disease.
Jennifer Waller, who lives in Clifton, New Jersey, recorded a Facebook video to share her story after she was diagnosed in August, noting that if she had waited and followed the general screening recommendations, she would have died.
“I’ve been an ER nurse for eight years and never once did I think I had colon cancer. I thought I had IBS, ulcerative colitis. I was completely shocked when they told me that they found a tumor,” Waller told TODAY.
“You don’t frequently hear about young women getting colon cancer. So the whole purpose behind the video was to make people aware.”
After TODAY reported her story earlier this month, Waller underwent surgery to remove the tumor and additional parts of the colon. She shared a happy update Friday: Doctors have told her she is now cancer-free.
Waller doesn’t have a family history of colon cancer or any other risk factors for the disease, which include being overweight, eating a diet low in fruit and vegetables and being sedentary. Waller lives a healthy lifestyle and is “relatively thin,” she said.
In April, she started to experience “vague, intermittent” belly pain. Then, the symptoms progressed. Waller’s OB/GYN noticed she had lost 12 pounds in six months, which Waller wasn’t even aware of. She also felt drained, but as a working mom with a 3-year old daughter and an 8-year-old son, it didn’t seem that surprising.
“There was a part of me that felt slightly kind of off and I didn’t know exactly why I felt that way. I felt more tired and exhausted than usual,” she recalled. “But I do have two small children and work two jobs, so when you’re 32, you can think of a million reasons why you might feel exhausted.”
In June, Waller started to notice some bright red blood in the toilet bowl about once a week. She thought it was a hemorrhoid or ulcerative colitis, but began to be more concerned as the abdominal pain grew worse.
A colonoscopy in August revealed a large tumor, which was confirmed to be colon cancer.
On Sept. 10, Waller underwent a colectomy. The three-hour operation turned into eight hours because the tumor was larger than expected and had spread into the muscle wall. But doctors were able to remove it completely, along with six inches of her colon and 27 "extremely suspect and inflamed" lymph nodes, Waller said. Doctors told her to mentally prepare for chemotherapy and possible radiation, but an analysis showed the lymph nodes did not contain any cancer cells.
"When they told me that I was cancer-free... I couldn't speak, my throat was closing, tears were pouring down my face," Waller said. "In that moment, my entire world was changing and I was starting life as a survivor and not as a cancer patient anymore, so it was a huge relief."
Previous tests showed the disease has not spread to her liver or lungs, Waller said.
Earlier this month, she decided to share her story in a video on Facebook.
“As a nurse, you always have an urge in you to help people and when all this happened, I figured I could get angry, I could get sad, but that’s not going to solve anything,” Waller said.
“The whole purpose behind the video was to make people aware because if I’m an emergency room nurse and I could have no idea that I had colon cancer, I figured the general public has no idea.”
Waller will undergo one more surgery to reverse a temporary ileostomy. She'll then have extremely strict follow-up for the next three years and routine colonoscopies for the rest of her life, she said. Waller is planning to start a non-profit called Jen's Journey to keep spreading awareness and help others.
What you need to know:
Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in men and women in the U.S. and the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths. More than 97,000 new cases of colon cancer are expected to be diagnosed this year.
Current government guidelines recommend screening for colon cancer beginning at age 50 for people at average risk — earlier, if you have a family history of the disease or other risk factors. But the American Cancer Society this year began advising people to start regular screening at 45.
More adults in their 20s and 30s are being diagnosed with colorectal cancer, studies have found. Katie Couric’s husband Jay Monahan was just 42 when he died of colon cancer in 1998.
The most common warning signs include rectal bleeding, abdominal pain and iron-deficiency anemia. Unexplained weight loss, like Waller experienced, can also be a symptom.
Colonoscopy is the most commonly used screening test, but other methods are available, so talk with your primary care doctor or a gastroenterologist about which one would work for you.
“Please, get screened; get checked because you never know. Your entire world can change in a moment,” Waller urged in her video.