Staying Strong Through Cancer
- JJ Singleton, a 27-year-old former college football player and CrossFit athlete, didn’t think much of the changes to his bowel habits. But it turned out to be stage 4 colon cancer.
- Symptoms of colon cancer include a change in bowel habits, blood in the stool, unexplained weight loss, fatigue, and persistent abdominal pain.
- Singleton underwent a colectomy and over 100 rounds of chemotherapy to battle the disease.
- Multiple treatment options are available for patients with stage 4 disease, including both surgical and non-surgical options depending on patient factors, like location and extent of disease and performance status.
- Star Wars was an escape for Singleton during his treatment, giving him the strength to keep going.
- Singleton’s advice for cancer patients: “Find something you love and let it be in an escape from all the anxiety and pressure of cancer.”
“I was so stubborn and did not want to believe anything major was wrong that I ignored symptoms for months,” he told SurvivorNet.Read More
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However, he began to experience terrible gastrointestinal symptoms. They became progressively worse, until one day, he explains, his face turned grey and he was in “constant, horrible pain.” He also started to see something pulsating through his skin.
It was a tumor.
“In the end, it was my mom. She told l me I was going to see a doctor,” JJ said.
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- Woman, 37, Went to Urgent Care With Stomach Pains and Told to Eat Fiber – She Got Colon Cancer Diagnosis 8 Months Later: ‘I’m Stronger Than What I Seem’
Staying Strong With a Positive Mindset
Singleton would be diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. Stage 4 cancer means that the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
“Stage 4 colorectal cancer means that the cancer has spread beyond the colon wall, to a distant part in the body, or to another organ nearby,” Dr. Heather Yeo, a colorectal surgeon at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and an advisor to SurvivorNet, told SurvivorNet in an earlier interview. “Sometimes with different chemotherapy and surgical treatment, you can get patients to have a complete cure. A chance of survival is lower than stage three but we still get cures even in stage four patients, which I think is really exciting.”
The most important thing to keep in mind regarding hearing statistics such as this is that each patient is different, and there is hope for a cure in every stage of the disease.
WATCH: Grinding Through Cancer — Finding the Strength to Keep Going
Multiple treatment options are available for patients with stage 4 disease, including both surgical and non-surgical options depending on patient factors, like location and extent of disease and performance status.
Thanks to the development of new therapies for metastatic colorectal cancer, there have been increased improvements in survival. Many of these treatment options involve a multidisciplinary approach and should be tailored to the individual patient depending on the location and the extent of metastatic disease.
Singleton underwent a colectomy, a surgery that removed 80% of his colon; in addition, approximately three feet of his small intestine was also removed. Doctors quickly assigned him to a regimen of chemotherapy, a treatment that uses chemicals to kill cells in the body that are growing rapidly.
At first, the surgery as well as the chemotherapy seemed to have worked, and Singleton and his doctors were hopeful. However, the cancer proved to be aggressive.
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“It was fast growing and nothing was touching it,” Singleton recalls. “Chemo after chemo was failing, There were many days when I did not want to keep fighting, but I also wasn’t ready to die yet.”
What kept him strong during a second battle with cancer?
“At that time I really just had a goal of reaching age 30 and I was dead-set to make that,” he explains.
Singleton is very young to have colon cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, the average age at the time of diagnosis for colon cancer is 68 for men and 72 for women. For rectal cancer, it is age 63 for both men and women. But lately we’re seeing a concerning trend of more and more younger people being diagnosed colorectal cancer – a term used to describe both colon cancer and rectal cancer.
“We know rates are increasing in young people, but it’s alarming to see how rapidly the whole patient population is shifting younger, despite shrinking numbers in the overall population,” said Rebecca Siegel, lead author of a recently published report in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians that outlines up-to-date- colorectal cancer statistics.
According to the data in the report, rates of colorectal cancer have been increasing in adults aged 20–39 years since the mid-1980s and in those aged 40–54 years since the mid-1990s. With “one in five new cases” now occurring in people in their early 50s or younger, we have to address the shifting patient population.
Fighting Cancer With the Help of Star Wars
Having a positive mindset is vital to surviving cancer, studies have shown.
Dr. Sid Ganguly, Deputy Director of Hematologic Malignancies and Cellular Therapeutics at the University of Kansas Medical Center, previously told SurvivorNet, “You have to have the eye of the tiger to go through this grueling process that is necessary these days to get rid of these virulent and aggressive cancers.” The “eye of the tiger” refers to an intense focus on one’s goal and a determination to survive the cancer.
Singleton, who was running out of options, was accepted into a clinical trial for the immunotherapy drug Keytruda (generic name pembrolizumab) in the treatment of colon cancer (It is now an FDA-approved treatment option). Even though this was good news, the trial was grueling. He spent 14 months surviving only on TPN (total parenteral nutrition) infusions, a method of feeding someone by using a tube to bypass their gastrointestinal tract. The TPN was keeping him alive, but it was very challenging and demoralizing, he said. It was important, he says, to find an escape from the pain and exhaustion.
Singleton kept his spirits up during those difficult days by watching a lot of TV and films.
“Any fantasy or movie was escape,” he says, “but Star Wars was special.”
The Star Wars franchise, featuring interplanetary wars and battles, has been a worldwide phenomenon for decades, but it was especially significant to Singleton.
“It allowed me to leave this world and go into that universe. I have always been a fan, but not a huge one until I was at the depths of my depression, and it saved me.”
Turning the Cancer Into Your Passion
The clinical trial worked, and Singleton recovered — though he still has cancer. A short time later, he began his advocacy work in the hopes of connecting with other people. He joined a Facebook group that was part of the Man Up to Cancer initiative.
Several of its members encouraged him to tell his story. They helped Singleton to see that “my story mattered, and I could help people because of the hell that I’ve been through and continue to go through.” Since then, Singleton has joined other efforts, including serving as an ambassador for the Colon Club.
He has a talent for articulating – on podcasts, in interviews, and in meetings with doctors and pharmaceutical companies – exactly what colon cancer patients endure.
“I get to travel and talk to people and share my story,” he told SurvivorNet, “and it really gives me a sense of purpose.”
His story is quite compelling, and he is able to express to others what it’s like to handle the physical, emotional, and mental effects of so many years of treatment.
“This makes me feel like I’m still doing something with my life,” says Singleton, who is not yet back to his regular job. “And most importantly, that I’m helping others go through the worst and hardest time and experience in their life.”
Fighting Your Own Battle
He offers sound advice for others who are battling the disease.
“Find people who understand, who you can be real and open and honest with, who get it,” he stresses. “It could be a group or organization or just another cancer patient, in person or online. Just don’t isolate, because that brings in the depression and that can affect your physical healing.”
Another tip that helped him tremendously: “Find something you love and let it be in an escape from all the anxiety and pressure of cancer. Mine was Star Wars. It could be books, puzzles, hiking, walking, anything.”
He adds, “As long as you can escape life with cancer for a couple minutes a day.”
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