Young colon cancer survivor fights the good fight

After preliminary tests to determine the cause of Alyson Davis’ chronic indigestion and heartburn revealed nothing, a precautionary colonoscopy dropped a bomb: the 33-year-old Long Beach resident had Stage 3 colon cancer. But her relative youth — which made the diagnosis doubly jarring — became an advantage when it came to treating the disease, which was tackled with surgery and extremely aggressive chemotherapy that has so far rendered her cancer-free.

The grueling regimen, however, was coupled with a heaping dose of compassion from the comprehensive team of professionals who manage gastrointestinal (GI) cancers at North Shore-LIJ Cancer Institute. Comprised of medical and surgical oncologists, diagnostic and interventional radiologists, nutritionists, radiation medicine specialists, geneticists, oncology nurses, nurse navigators and other specialists, the GI team tailors the best treatment approach for each patient based a variety of physical factors, but always taking the individual’s needs and preferences into consideration.

“I couldn’t have gotten better care,” said Ms. Davis, now 34 and back to work as director of a daycare center after six months of chemotherapy. “They became like our family and they treat you like you’re their family. The second you need anything, they’re right there for you.”

Causes and Effects

GI cancers can affect the esophagus, stomach, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, small intestine or colon. Also included are so-called GIST tumors, fairly rare malignancies that start in special cells lining the walls of the GI tract. Most patients diagnosed with these cancers are older than Ms. Davis, but “we’re seeing younger and younger patients,” observed Vincent Vinciguerra, MD, a medical oncologist at the Monter Cancer Center. “We can’t explain it, but we’re looking to find the causes and set up prevention programs.”

This inquiring approach helps patients in other ways as well. For example, North Shore-LIJ participates in a large clinical research trial weighing whether three months of preventive chemotherapy after colon cancer surgery is just as effective as six months of chemotherapy, a change that would reduce drug side effects on patients. These studies, along with the depth and breadth of the GI team’s expertise, can offer better results for patients who might not otherwise have a good outcome, Dr. Vinciguerra said.

“We try to meet all their needs and offer them hope, because many patients come to us with a bad prognosis,” he said. “With new treatments, we can offer them the hope to keep fighting.”

A Strong Outlook

Dr. Vinciguerra sympathized with Ms. Davis’ situation as a young person whose life was temporarily put on hold by cancer, but noted that her positive outlook served her well during the trying experience.

“All her friends were having fun and doing things and she had to go through this very vigorous treatment regimen,” he said. “Her mental outlook is amazingly good considering what she’s been through. Now that we’ve given her treatment, our goal is to cure it, and we expect her to do very well.”

Ms. Davis considers herself not only physically rejuvenated, but mentally toughened as well. “Once you’ve been through something like this,” she said, “your life is completely changed forever. But I’ve never felt so strong after going through what I did.”

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