John Robert's Story

"Brilliant people" help John Roberts overcome colon cancer.

John RobersThree weeks before his first colonoscopy, John Roberts ran a triathlon.

At the age of 48, John was remarkably fit. But for several weeks in the spring of 2011, he had experienced stomach upset that would not subside.

“I was being the stereotypical male,” says John. “I spent a month telling myself it would go away any time now. I finally talked to my wife about it, and she convinced me to have it checked out.”

Some preliminary tests turned up nothing. So John’s family practitioner, Dr. Donald Symer, suggested that he have a colonoscopy.

The colonoscopy was performed by Joseph Hsu on June 21, 2011. As the sedation was wearing off, Dr. Hsu came in to speak with John and his wife, Kate.

“He was very sweet when he spoke with us,” recalls John. “Then he said, ‘I found an obstruction, and I’m sure it’s cancer.’ That really struck me. If he didn’t even have to wait for test results, I thought it must be really bad.”

Being in charge.

The next day, John called Dr. Hsu to make sure he had understood the diagnosis correctly.

Dr. Hsu confirmed what he had told John the day before. In fact, the tumor in John’s colon was so large, it was impassable—the scope that Dr. Hsu used could not get past it. Dr. Hsu referred John to the Chief of Colorectal Surgery at the University of Rochester Medical Center, Dr. John Monson.

In preparation for his meeting with Dr. Monson, John started doing research on the internet. He also read Lance Armstrong’s book about his experiences with testicular cancer. Walking into his meeting with Dr. Monson, John had a long list of items that he wanted to cover.

“I’m a man, a father, I’ve run my own business,” says John, Chief Strategy Officer at Partner & Napier, a Rochester-based advertising agency. “I’m used to being in charge. But I was walking into a world where I wasn’t in charge. Colon cancer is the second-leading killer among cancers. So I was trying to figure out a few things to make it more objective.”

Dr. Monson went through John’s list with him, item by item. And then he told John something that was remarkably comforting: that he would be there to lead John through it all.

Planning John’s treatment.

While John would still need an MRI and a CT scan, Dr. Monson began to lay out the path forward: John had a tumor in the sigmoid colon, the lowest part of the colon. Dr. Monson planned to remove that section of John’s colon with laparoscopic surgery.

Several small incisions would be made in John’s abdomen for the insertion of catheters, a camera and surgical tools. The tumor and part of John’s colon would be removed, then the two ends of the colon would be stitched back together.

As Dr. Monson finished his explanation, he said to John, “You haven’t asked me about one thing.”

John said, “What’s that?”

Dr. Monson continued: “You haven’t asked me the question that’s on everyone’s mind: ‘Will this lead to a colostomy bag?’” A colostomy bag is an external bag that collects waste from the body when the colon is no longer operational because of cancer or colon surgery.

“That question had been on my mind” says John. “But I assumed he would bring it up. He gave me a good answer: He said there was a surprisingly good chance that I wouldn’t need a colostomy bag at all, not even temporarily.” Less than 5% of his patients need a colostomy, and those are almost all temporary.

“When can I eat?”

John’s surgery was scheduled for the end of August—giving him time to return to his native England for his father’s 80th birthday.

John decided to be very open about his cancer diagnosis. After sharing the news with his immediate family, John emailed all of his clients. He then began posting regular updates on Facebook.

“For me, that was a huge help,” says John. “People seemed surprised at my choice to be so public. But I drew on the prayers and wishes of so many people. I was humbled and strengthened by them. And it also overcame that stigma—the secret disease that everyone is scared of.”

On the day of surgery, John felt excited. He had developed an intensely positive attitude toward his ordeal. “I told myself, ‘I’m not sick—I’m winning,’” says John. “I’m in the ad business, so I had to create my own tagline!”

John’s surgery was performed by Dr. Monson using robotic assistance. This approach promised greater precision, less blood loss and a quicker recovery. The surgery took about five hours. By 9 PM, John was in his hospital room recovering.

The next morning at 6 AM, Dr. Monson stopped by John’s room on his morning rounds.

John asked Dr. Monson, “So when can I drink?”

“Now.”

“And when can I eat?”

“Now.”

John was astonished. “By 7 AM the day after my surgery, I was eating an omelet and having a coffee from Starbucks!”

The gift of cancer.

John was discharged the next afternoon, with virtually no restrictions on what he could eat or drink—and with no colostomy bag. Two days later, he was walking 2 miles a day.

“Really slow!” says John. “But I didn’t care.”

John spent much of the next several days enjoying time with Kate and his twin 16-year-old boys. But within two weeks, he was already involved with projects at work. Because of the success of his surgery, John did not need any radiation therapy or chemotherapy.

Six months after his surgery, John was fitter than he was before it—and planning to compete in a triathlon just three months away.

“When I look back, I talk about it as my 92 days of cancer,” he says. “I’m blessed to have had the gift of cancer, and the luck and good fortune to have had brilliant people help me.”