Jennifer Wagner's Story

A 39-year-old mother beats rectal cancer.

When Jennifer Wagner received a diagnosis of rectal cancer, her reaction was what anyone might expect from a young mother:

“I thought my children were going to be without their mom,” she recalls.

At just 39 years of age, Jennifer was an unlikely candidate for rectal cancer. She was in good health and had no family history of cancer. But for several weeks, she had experienced rectal bleeding. Fearing what that could mean, she put off calling her doctor.

“I didn’t want to find out it was cancer,” she says. “So I pushed it to the back of my mind.”

When Jennifer finally mentioned the problem to her family physician, he immediately referred her to Dr. John Monson, Chief of Colorectal Surgery at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

Dr. Monson, an international authority on colorectal disease, performed an outpatient procedure called a flex sigmoidoscopy to examine Jennifer’s lower large intestine. The procedure revealed a mass near the end of her colon. Dr. Monson took a biopsy of the tissue and scheduled an MRI for Jennifer the next day.

When Jennifer met with Dr. Monson a week later, he told her there was both good and bad news.

“I’ll give you the good news first,” said Dr. Monson. “You are a potentially curable patient. But it is cancer.”

Creating a plan of attack.

Jennifer’s cancer was at Stage 2 or 3. In other words, the tumor was believed to have already grown through the wall of the rectum and might be affecting nearby lymph nodes. Dr. Monson suggested enrolling in a clinical trial that provided a new, cutting-edge approach.

“I told myself I was going to do whatever he told me to do,” says Jennifer. “I thought, ‘I’m going to fight this.’”

The clinical trial was designed to shrink the tumor through an aggressive protocol of chemotherapy and radiation.

Jennifer would have a multidisciplinary team working with her: Dr. Aram Hezel, a medical oncologist, Dr. Alan Katz, a radiation oncologist, and Dr. Monson, her surgeon. These three doctors would meet together regularly to review and discuss her case.

Jennifer’s treatment started with five weeks of chemotherapy. Then, after a break of two weeks, she received another five weeks of chemotherapy—along with radiation every day.

This was the hardest stage for Jennifer. The clinical trial called for radiation doses that were larger than normal, and the treatments left her exhausted. As a result, she needed to take time off from her work as a nurse. Even more difficult, she had to reduce the time she spent with her two children, a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old.

“They spent a lot of time with their grandparents,” says Jennifer. “They didn’t understand it. They knew that I was sick because I had a Mediport in my chest for the chemo. They kept asking about that and said, ‘Mommy has a boo-boo.’”

Facing a new concern.

When her chemotherapy and radiation were completed, Jennifer took eight weeks off before surgery. On August 24, 2011, the day she had been waiting for finally arrived.
“I was just ready to get this thing out of me!” she says. “I was nervous, of course. But I had a lot of faith in Dr. Monson. He had a calming effect on me.”

Surprisingly, a new worry had replaced Jennifer’s anxieties about cancer: She was concerned that she would need a colostomy bag after her surgery. A colostomy bag is used to collect waste when the colon or rectum is no longer functioning.

Jennifer knew there was a chance she might need a colostomy bag, at least temporarily. But there was no way to know for sure until the time of her surgery.
Dr. Monson performed Jennifer’s surgery using the daVinci Surgical Robot. The minimally invasive procedure used several smaller incisions rather than one large one. This would help to aid her recovery. The largest incision would be hidden in her scar from a C-section.

When Jennifer awoke from the anesthesia, she had one thought on her mind: Do I have a colostomy? She looked under her covers and discovered that she didn’t.

“I was very excited and thanked God for that!” she says.

There was more good news for Jennifer: The cancer had not spread to her lymph nodes. And the lump Dr. Monson removed was classified as just Stage 1. The treatment protocol from the clinical trial seemed to have done a remarkable job.

“I consider myself a miracle,” she says. “The tumor had shrunk significantly. Apparently, you could barely see it.”

A new appreciation for life.

Despite her surgery, Jennifer was not given any dietary restrictions. Within hours, she was walking up and down the halls of the hospital. And within days, she was back home with her husband, John, and her two children.

She would undergo three more months of chemotherapy, a planned part of her clinical trial. This time was easier though: She was able to go home with a portable pump that delivered her medicine. And because of her training as a nurse, she was able to detach the pump herself.

As Jennifer nears the one-year anniversary of her diagnosis, she tells of how she appreciates life—and appreciates the people who saved it.

”It was a privilege to have this group of people working for me,” she says. “And it was great to have all the resources I needed at just one hospital. They are an incredible team!”

“Dr. Monson told me that we would get through this together. I wasn’t just a cancer to him and his team. I was actually a person.”