My name is Jen Waller. I am a 32-year-old mother of two and an emergency department nurse educator. In April 2018 I had just celebrated my 32nd birthday when I started experiencing vague abdominal pain. The pain would come and go and I assumed I drank too much coffee. The pain continued over the next few months accompanied by fatigue, but when you are a mom and work two jobs, fatigue is a normal reality.
In June I went to see my OBGYN for a routine check-up, where she informed me I had lost 12 pounds in six months. This is when my nurse radar went up. I also went and got a mammogram in June because breast cancer runs in my family; all negative. Then I started to notice bright red blood in my stool at times. My gynecologist told me something was wrong and I scheduled an appointment with a gastroenterologist. By the end of August, I went in for a colonoscopy, which I thought for sure would reveal ulcerative colitis.
When I awoke from my colonoscopy, I looked at the nurse’s face; that look was all too familiar. Oh my gosh…Something is wrong….I have given that look so many times. I looked at her and begged her to tell me what was going on. She informed me that my doctor would be over. Within moments he was standing over my stretcher. “Jen, we found a very large tumor…” His eyes were filled with tears. I said to him, “I have cancer?” He said, “I can’t be 100 percent sure, but it looks like it.”
That moment is frozen in my mind. This is where my entire world changed. He informed me that I don’t fit many of the characteristics. I am in shape, live a healthy lifestyle, and have no family history. The next few days involved an intense amount of soul searching and research. I was alarmed to find how many young adults were being diagnosed with colon cancer. I have always believed we choose who we are, and I decided in that moment, I was choosing to be ridiculously positive. With cancer, you don’t have many choices, but you choose your attitude towards it. Additionally, I thought I need to let others know and help them. I am a nurse and never thought I would have colon cancer and simply chalked my symptoms up to being a mom.
I posted a video on Facebook that was raw; expressing my thoughts, fears, and decision to be positive. I explained the increased rise in colon cancer and screening standards in America. Well, this video went viral. I soon had hundreds of people from across the world messaging me with stories and support.
I never felt so much light in a time of darkness. I had so much clarity in my life all of a sudden. I thought how could a cancer diagnosis bring me peace and inspiration? But it did because I choose to shine light on the darkness of cancer.
On September 10th I went in for a low anterior resection. It did not go as planned. My 3-hour resection turned into an 8-hour procedure. My tumor was larger, lower, and deeper in the muscle than expected, leaving me with an ileostomy, which was not our original treatment plan.
When I woke up, I was crying and shocked; twenty-seven lymph nodes were removed. My surgeon explained to me how inflamed they were and to expect chemotherapy. For a moment, I felt bad for myself. Then I lay in the hospital staring at the neutral colored walls and remembered all the stories and inspiration, and my decision to be positive. That was the last moment I ever felt bad for myself.
Days later, pathology came back. My doctor looked at me and said “Jen, not one lymph node had an ounce of cancer cell in them.” Tears were pouring down my face and my throat was so incredibly tight. I couldn’t speak. I was given a second chance; an opportunity I planned on using to the fullest.
Now I still have my ileostomy bag (every girl’s dream) for another five weeks, and have started a non-profit to help spread awareness and help others going through the journey of cancer—Jen’s Journey—whose motto is, “In a world where you can be anything, be kind.”
Yes, I am currently in remission, which I attest to early screening. Colon cancer is highly treatable when detected early, and I caught it just in time. More importantly, my choice; my choice to play the best hand I could with the cards I was dealt.
There are not many choices when diagnosed with cancer, but you choose your approach. The only thing stronger than fear is hope. By sharing my story, I hope to help as many other people as possible, because age is no longer a factor.
With lots of love,