A second opinion gives colorectal cancer patient a new lease on life
In the fall of 2007, Jennifer Weir was dropping her daughter off at college in the Bay Area. Weir is a young mom; just 39 years old at the time, she was happily married, had recently re enrolled in college for nursing and spent much of her time involved in her Thousand Oaks community. She was thrilled to be seeing her 17-year-old begin a journey toward becoming a speech pathologist.
“I was so excited,” she says. “I was a healthy, active person, and I was ready to get my daughter all set up.”
So when Weir began to feel pain and discomfort in her stomach on the weekend of her daughter’s move, she thought very little of it. It wasn’t until the aching worsened over the course of the following week that she finally went to the emergency room. It was then, she says, that she and her husband got the shocking news: Weir had stage 4 colorectal cancer.
I asked the doctor, ‘is there a stage 5?’ and he said, ‘no.’“ With that, she adds, “I didn’t figure I had very long to live.”
“Cancer was the furthest thing from my mind,” she says now. “I was 39. I didn’t know anyone with cancer.”
Weir had a colon resection at a local hospital in Chico, CA almost immediately. When she returned to Los Angeles, she began searching for a local doctor to continue her care. But the first one she visited gave her a dismal prognosis; he didn’t believe she would recover, and wasn’t going to operate on her liver. “It was very depressing,” says Weir. “He gave me no hope.”
But Weir isn’t one to take no for an answer. “I’m strong,” she says. “I’m healthy. I didn’t buy it.”
“THIS IS MY GUY”
She began looking around for a second opinion, and in the process a friend suggested she go to USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center and see Heinz-Josef Lenz, MD, co-director of the USC Norris Gastrointestinal Cancers Program. Weir took the suggestion, and the first time she and her husband met Lenz, she knew immediately that he was the right person to handle her care.
After hearing the plan put in place by Weir’s other doctor, Lenz said, “that’s not what I would do,” Weir recalls. “He said, ‘you need a team, you need a new plan’ — I thought, ‘yup, this is my guy.’ I had complete confidence in him.”
Her confidence was not misplaced. Along with Lenz, a team of surgeons and doctors at USC Norris created a new plan for Weir. In December of 2007, she had a liver resection and her right ovary was removed, as the cancer had metastasized. “I was in such good hands,” says Weir. “I feel so fortunate to be able to go to USC Norris. I just love everybody there. I can’t say enough about it.”
For the following six months, Weir underwent chemotherapy. After 12 sessions, she and her doctors thought she was in the clear.
But in December of 2008 — exactly one year after her initial surgery — another tumor was discovered in her left ovary. Lenz decided it needed to be removed. He recommended a surgeon in Washington, DC, who would perform a hysterectomy, remove Weir’s gall bladder, and — the most strenuous part of the surgery — provide chemotherapy while Weir was still on the operating table.
During a visit with Lynda D. Roman, MD, co-director of the Lynne Cohen & Georgia Cord Preventive Cancer Care Clinic at USC Norris, who performed the removal of Weir’s ovary, Weir broke down thinking about the possibility of the surgery not working.
“I just have to tell my kids,” she told Roman, “that I did everything I could do to be here with them.”
Tearing up, Weir now explains, “Dr. Roman took my hands, and she said, ‘if that’s what you want, then that’s what we’re going to make happen.’ All the doctors at USC were just so supportive.”
Weir traveled to Washington, DC for the surgery, then returned to do chemotherapy at USC Norris.
“THEY TREAT YOU LIKE A PERSON”
Following five months of chemotherapy, Weir’s health slowly began to improve. Part of that, she says, is due to the hospital staff’s human touch.
“They treat you like a person,” she says. “They really care. The nurses, the guy who took my blood, the doctors — I love them all.”
Perhaps more than that, though, her team at USC Norris never gave up.
“Dr. Lenz and the team down there are willing to fight,” she says. “They are willing to fight insurance companies, they are willing to fight on any level to make it happen for you. They are not taking the easy way out.”
With the support of her husband and children, Weir began opening her mind to the possibility that she may have more time left than she originally thought — and it’s given her a new lease on life. Since recovering from chemotherapy, Weir has taken a new job doing social media for a radio personality.
She’s taken her aging mother into her home to live. She and her husband are making long-term travel plans — because, she says, “what are we waiting for?”
As for Weir’s children, they’re quickly growing into young adults. Her youngest daughter is enrolled in nursing school, and her son is in college as well. And her oldest daughter, whom she was dropping off at college at the time of her diagnosis, has graduated.
Weir was there.
“I cried tears of joy,” she says of the graduation day. “The same that any parent would cry when her baby graduates … and a few extra.”
By Jessica Ogilvie
Visit cancer.KeckMedicine.org for more detailed information about the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center.