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On March 26, Jennifer Jones was one of the early arrivals at the Colorectal Cancer Alliance’s DC ScopeItOut 5K run at Freedom Plaza in downtown Washington, D.C.
Jones, the first African American woman to dance with the world-renowned Rockettes, was at the event as a supporter and to help raise awareness. She also performed with James Casey, critically acclaimed saxophonist, singer, producer and composer.
“James asked me and I danced with him. I was there for a sound check. I’m not really a morning person, but it was so quiet, beautiful and serene,” said Jones, a colorectal cancer survivor. “The day and the event were wonderful. There were many more people there than I expected, and I loved being able to dance with James.”
“There were more people there than I thought,” he said. “There were vendors, food trucks and people prepping. There was blue everywhere. Against the backdrop of the Capitol, it was beautiful.”
Jones danced on Broadway for five years in 42nd Street, The Musical, worked out every day and lived an active lifestyle. She had no idea that her life would take the momentous turn it did.
In 2017, at age 50, colon cancer snuck up on her.
“I was considered the healthiest one in my family. I’m the first African American Radio City Music Hall Rockette, performed on Broadway, owned a fitness studio and had been vegetarian for over 30 years,” said Jones. “I had just turned 50, my stomach was bothering me – I felt gassy, bloated. I thought these things happen and I took gluten out of my diet.”
Jones recalled visiting a gastroenterologist, being booked in and a doctor coming to her after the procedure was complete to deliver some unexpected news.
“I was told I had cancer and that I had five years to live. I cried. I felt like I was doing everything right,” said Jones.
Jones said she was dissatisfied because of the way her doctor treated her.
“It felt like I was a dollar sign to him,” she said. “My older sister just said, ‘Sloan. Go to Sloan [Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, a renowned cancer treatment and research hospital in New York City]. That’s where I found my doctors, Dr. Iris Wei, and Dr. Elizabeth Won. They made me very comfortable, made it very easy for me to talk about it. And they helped me get on this platform.”
Diagnosed with Stage 3 colorectal cancer, Jones began an aggressive course of treatment, including surgery and eight rounds of chemotherapy. For about a month, she opted not to share the diagnosis with her family, Jones said.
“I didn’t tell anyone. Then in June of 2018, I told my family, ‘I have colorectal cancer,’” she said. “I never thought those words, in that order, would ever come out of my mouth. When I was diagnosed at the age of 50 at Stage 3. I was shocked to say the least. And even a little embarrassed. I chose to explore my cancer journey in private with my family.”
“After eight rounds of chemotherapy and re-section surgery that December, I was deemed cancer free in January 2019.
Casey said he was blindsided when he found out that he, at 38, had colorectal cancer.
“I was playing at Red Rocks Amphitheater. I came back to New York, was doing gigs and I was feeling bloated,” said Casey, who tours the world with many top acts, including the Grateful Dead and the Trey Anastasio Band. “I took GasX but nothing changed – it got worse. I went to the ER and they said I had colitis – thickening the walls of the intestines. I went back to the doctor in the emergency room.”
Casey said the ER surgeon overread his chart.
“I was in so much pain and they sent me home with meds,” said Casey. “My stomach was distended, my colon was blocked and the tumor had pierced through my colon. I had to have emergency surgery.”
Casey said his first reaction was he was glad to finally know what was wrong.
“It was the worst pain I ever had. I felt like I was climbing the walls. It was a rough situation because the tumor was blocking the colon,” said Casey, who launched his first solo album, “The Kaua’i Project,” and released its first single and video (“New Bloom”) during National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. “Unfortunately, that hospital was not the best. The first chemo did not work.”
Casey said he was aware of a treatment called CTDNA which looks at the molecules of a tumor.
“It’s a great new technology but the doc did not know what to do with that data,” Casey said. “I moved from Stage 3 to 4 at that institution. Now the disease is stable.
‘It Can Affect Anyone‘
Dr. Cedreck McFadden said colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of death in the U.S., but if caught early enough, the survival rate is 90%.
“African Americans have a 20% higher risk of diagnosis and a 35% higher risk of dying. They have the highest mortality rate. It’s quite alarming,” said McFadden, who lives outside of Greenville, South Carolina, has been a physician for 19 years and in practice for 13, said early detection is critical.
“It can affect anyone. Some people are at greater risk. One of the greater risks is getting older, but with that being said, we’re also seeing that the number of people diagnosed at age of 50 has almost doubled,” he said. “It’s alarming for several reasons.”
McFadden said that there has been a 2% per year increase in younger people being diagnosed with colorectal cancer, leading to the changes in guidance by medical experts. If someone has hemorrhoids or some small bleeding, these could be signs of the presence of colorectal cancer, he said.
“As soon as someone has a sign or symptoms, they are able to have it investigated and doctors listen and follow up,” he said. “As we educate more members of the public and primary care specialists, they’ll be more in tune with their patients and how the disease affects people.”
That’s why CCA hosted the 5K run: to educate, boost awareness and raise money – a total of $400,000 – for much-needed research.
“ScopeItOut was created about 20 years ago by Charlotte Kraenzle and Julie Clowes who both lost parents to colon cancer,” Sapienza said. “There were no runs or walks for colon cancer. We have quickly become the largest in the country. We will have about 3,000 people.”
Sapienza, who lost his mother to colon cancer on Mother’s Day 2009, said those fighting the disease describe it as preventable cancer.
“I would say that there’s a stigma behind it. However, when (actor Chadwick) Boseman passed away, it caused a wave of awareness,” he said. “And the Lead from Behind campaign raised even more awareness.”
Casey said the disease upended and then changed his life.
“Being positive and having a good attitude throughout this whole thing is part of this whole health stuff,” said Casey, who was born in Washington, D.C. “Chemo means getting beat up on the inside and out but your outlook determines how you deal with this. Cancer is an insurmountable giant-ass wall. But it can be conquered with incremental steps.”
“I have a much greater respect for death, a much greater respect for life and the greater appreciation and understanding behind it,” he said. “We think of life as this thing that we have. We don’t think about it being snuffed out. We take a whole lot of stuff for granted.”
“There’s a problem with CRC including with young people and it’s much worse for us. I turned 40 a couple of days ago. They just lowered the age to get a colonoscopy to 45 but I still would not fall into that category.”
Jones said her experience is what makes her educate others about colorectal cancer in the hopes that those she seeks to help won’t have to experience what she did.
“Thanks to the Colorectal Cancer Alliance, I’m able to advocate for regular colonoscopy screenings, early detection, and help others who are combatting this deadly disease,” said Jones. “By speaking openly and honestly about CRC, we can shed the shame that tends to be associated with it. We can shine a light on it and fight together.”
This is a powerful and inspiring article that brings much-needed attention to the importance of early detection in fighting colorectal cancer. The personal stories of Jennifer Jones and James Casey serve as a reminder that this disease can affect anyone, and the work done by the Colorectal Cancer Alliance in raising awareness and funds for research is truly commendable.
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