The First African American Rockette, Jennifer Jones, Says She Has Colon Cancer — A Wake Up Call

“Early detection is key,” says Jennifer Jones, “If I had gone in at 45, my cancer stage would have been different.”

Published Feb 4, 2019

Zara Sternberg

The first African American Rockette to dance at Radio City Music Hall, Tony Award winner, and now colon cancer survivor — that’s Jennifer Jones.

Jennifer Jones joined the Rockettes in 1988. Before that, African Americans weren’t allowed in Radio City Music Hall’s famous dance group. In 1982, Violet Holmes, Director and Choreographer of the Rockettes, defended the doctrine,  “One or two black girls in the line would definitely distract. You would lose the look of precision, which is the hallmark of the Rockettes.”

Jennifer Jones in costume with the Rockettes

SurvivorNet and NYU Langone Health’s Perlmutter Cancer Center are collaborating to help close the racial gap in cancer prevention, cancer care, and survival rates.

Jones’ national debut with the Rockettes was on Sunday, January 31, 1988, during their offsite performance at the National Football League’s Super Bowl halftime show in San Diego.

The Rockettes Perform at the 1988 Super Bowl Half Time Show

In 2001, Jones was one of three black women to perform in the ensemble of the Broadway revival of 42nd Street, which won the Tony Award for Best Musical Revival.

After a routine colonoscopy, Jones found out she had colon cancer. She was totally surprised at the time. “I was still kind of out of it from the anesthesia, but I remember my doctor saying, ‘We were all surprised when we saw it,’” Jones told Yahoo! Lifestyle. “I was in shock when I left. I have family members with colitis who had similar symptoms,” she said, “but I thought maybe I was just allergic to gluten.”

“I’m now cancer-free and I’m so happy about that,” Jones said, but she’s also talking about a lot of the changes she’s experienced. “I had eight rounds of the pill chemotherapy and six rounds of IV chemotherapy. The IV therapy was the hardest. It knocked me out for a few days afterward each time. My body feels like it’s still trying to find a balance. I can’t hold it as long as I used to,” Jones said.  “I don’t know how my body is going to react to certain foods.”

“Nobody knew. I didn’t want them to look at me in a different way, and I didn’t want anyone’s pity,” she says in the interview, “I was worried about my future with a possible colostomy bag, and I was worried about my future in general. I have two children — I want to be able to meet my grandchildren someday.”

“Early detection is key,” Jones says, “If I had gone in at 45, my cancer stage would have been different.”

We don’t know the details of Jones’s case, but we do know that colon cancer can go undetected for a while. “Colon Cancer is considered a silent and deadly killer. What happens is people often don’t know that they have colon cancer,” says Heather Yeo, Colorectal Surgeon and Surgical Oncologist at NewYork-Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center. “They don’t have any symptoms.”

“For everyone who’s not an African American, the typical screening guidelines are, at the age of 50, a colonoscopy is to be done.  And for African Americans, it’s age 45,” according to Dr. Zuri Murrell, Colorectal Surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. But the guidelines definitely aren’t always perfect, he says, “That’s why it’s important for you to actually educate yourself and be your own healthcare advocate.”

According to Dr. Murrell, studies suggest not only a discrepancy in the care given to rich and poor Americans, but also a discrepancy that can be attributed to race, even in the case of equal monetary standing, “there’s some studies that show that even racial biases and racial disparities are even greater [than financial disparities], meaning that if you have people of equal wealth, there still are disparities in tests that are offered.”

But Dr. Murrell doesn’t jump to any conclusions. “I really don’t think it’s some overt, you know, plan to provide lesser care to African Americans or people with decreased wealth. I really think it comes down to being comfortable and having a comfort with patients,” he says.

“I do a lot of outreach in different communities, especially African American communities.  Here at Cedars-Sinai, I started doing it with Korean communities and Latino communities,” says Dr. Murrell. “What I found, especially with my African American patients, is that there’s not a lot of African American GI docs. There’s not a lot of African American colorectal surgeons.”

“It’s still to the point where when I’m at the hospital that I work at, the janitors and a lot of the cleaning staff, and some of the ancillary transport staff who are, there are a lot of African Americans,” says Dr. Murrell, “They still are shaking my hand, telling me I’m one of the few black doctors that, that they’ve ever seen or ever spoken to. And this is 2018.”

“When I go to churches, and I go to a lot of inner-city churches just to, to kind of communicate my message of being your own healthcare advocate, I tell the story, and I try to diminish some of the taboo nature of colon and rectal surgery, anal rectal surgery,” says Dr. Murrell.

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Zara Sternberg is a journalist and writer for SurvivorNet. Read More

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