Jason’s Stage 4 Colorectal Cancer Story
Jason’s cancer journey began in 2005, in the middle of his Navy service. He began experiencing stomach issues and was diagnosed with GERD.
In 2018, he was seen by his doctor when he developed severe abdominal pain and infrequent bowel movements. A scan revealed 80% of his liver was covered with metastatic disease, which led to a stage 4 colorectal cancer diagnosis.
After years of fighting Veterans Affairs to prove his cancer was connected to exposure to cancer-causing chemicals during his Navy service, restitution was granted through the Pact Act – an Act that grants better healthcare and funding to veterans exposed to toxic chemicals.
Jason shares his cancer journey, his work with COLONTOWN – a colorectal cancer support network, his dreams of leading a cancer retreat center, and how he overcame liver surgery and chemo after doctors said it couldn’t be done.
At the Patient Story, we feature the real voices of cancer patients to empower and offer hope. Explore more Colorectal Cancer Stories for further inspiration.
- Name: Jason R.
- Diagnosis (DX):
- Colorectal Cancer
- Primary mass in the sigmoid
- Colorectal Cancer
- Staging: 4
- Abdominal pain
- Infrequent bowel movements/ constipation
- Belly button discharge
- Age at DX: 35
- Hepatectomy, cholecystectomy, lower anterior resection, lung ablation, port placement, fistulotomy
- Oxaliplatin (OX), Irinotecan (IRI), 5FU (FOLF)
- 2 Y-90 radioembolizations
This interview has been edited for clarity. This is not medical advice. Please consult with your healthcare provider for treatment decisions.
- Symptoms & Diagnosis
- Tell us about yourself
- When did you first notice something wasn’t right?
- Receiving a diagnosis
- Was there any connection between your GERD and colorectal cancer?
- Did the VA take responsibility for your diagnosis after your exposure to cancer-causing chemicals?
- Finding help through the Pact Act
- Did you have any other symptoms before your diagnosis?
- Did you have bleeding?
- How did you react to receiving your cancer diagnosis?
- How did your wife react to your diagnosis?
- What were the next steps in your treatment?
- How did you come to terms with a terminal prognosis?
- What treatments were you on?
- Switching treatments due to lung spots
- Getting a second opinion led to new treatment options
- What inspired you to get a second opinion?
- Cancer reoccurrence and COVID caused changes to treatment
- Finding hope after his son’s birth
- Integrative medicine in cancer care
- Getting an Ostomy
- Post-Treatment Tests & Scans
- Describe the work you’ve done since being diagnosed
- The importance of expressing your emotions
- A trip to Hawaii led to new revelations
- Connecting with a cancer retreat center
- What’s helped you stay hopeful throughout your cancer journey?
- What advice do you have for someone recently diagnosed with cancer?
Symptoms & Diagnosis
Tell us about yourself
My name is Jason Randall. I live in Eudora, Kansas with my wife and 3 children. We live on a hobby farm. I was in the Navy for 5 years from 2003 to 2008. After that, I went to school.
My wife and I were best friends in high school. After the Navy and college, we reconnected. When I came back from Hawaii for a semester at the University of Kansas, we started dating. My wife has our daughter from a previous relationship, who I’ve adopted.
We’ve lived on this hobby farm for 10 years. I’m a cartographer by profession. Technically, a GIS analyst. We like to fish as a family. We go to the gym and swim quite a bit.
When did you first notice something wasn’t right?
In about 2005, right in the middle of my Navy service, I had some stomach issues that they tested. They came to the conclusion that I had GERD reflux disease, so they put me on omeprazole and Zantac-type medications. It was fine for years after that.
Receiving a diagnosis
About 2018, I was diagnosed. It blindsided us. I say us as in my family because I always include caregivers. They are often overlooked in this process.
They saw that about 80% of my liver was covered in what appeared to be metastatic lesions…It started me in this world of advanced-stage colorectal cancer.
Two weeks before, I had some severe abdominal pain that I’d never had before and 2 weeks before that, I’d noticed that I wasn’t going to the bathroom at a regular frequency. Then it just stopped and I started getting abdominal pain. That’s when I thought something was wrong. I need to go get this checked out.
My mom had diverticulitis quite a bit over the last couple of decades and they said, “It’s probably that. Let’s get a CT scan just to make sure so we can put you on antibiotics for it.”
I had that scan on July 16th. They saw that about 80% of my liver was covered in what appeared to be metastatic lesions. That prompted a PET scan on the 17th which confirmed it. My liver, the large majority of it, was covered in metastatic disease. It started me in this world of advanced-stage colorectal cancer.
Was there any connection between your GERD and colorectal cancer?
I brought that up along the way many times after I was diagnosed. The doctors never put them together because they generally think, anything in the upper esophagus or upper GI tract is Barrett’s disease or esophageal cancer instead of colorectal cancer.
My colon, where we found the tumor was at the sigmoid part of my colon, right before the rectum. So there really wasn’t a tie to it.
Ironically, after I had surgery to remove 30 cm of my colon, my GERD completely went away. It cued me to ask, what’s going on here?
If you look at the history all the way back to 2005, I was on ranitidine, which is Zantac. Then when I got out of the military into the Veteran Affairs (VA) system, I was on omeprazole for 10 years. My doctor mentioned that the advanced stage of my disease and the extent of it [means] it had been in me for about 10 to 15 years at a minimum. That squarely placed it right in my military service.
Did the VA take responsibility for your diagnosis after your exposure to cancer-causing chemicals?
Not definitively. Presumptively, yes. I was fighting the VA for about 3 years, trying to tell them that everything lines up with the exposures I had while I was in the Newport News Shipyard.
After I got out of my basic and my school training, I reported to the USS Eisenhower in 2004, in what they call an RCOH overhaul, where they take an aircraft carrier in the middle of its life and completely redo everything. They take it down to bare steel. They replace the reactor rods. I was in that environment for about 2 years.
We had all sorts of chemical and toxic exposures. You can use PPE and try to protect yourself, but you still inhale it once you take the equipment off. I was also within the burn pit zones in the Persian Gulf from 2006 to 2007.
Finding help through the Pact Act
They said you need to prove to us and provide a nexus that caused this, which is impossible. Even though statistically, 25-35% of all veterans of any service have an increased risk of multiple cancer types.
Jon Stewart was one of the biggest promoters of this law called the Pact Act for Toxic Exposures and Burn Pits. It finally connected my service to my cancer diagnosis.
Because of the way the laws were written before, the burden of proof was on the person having cancer. They said you need to prove to us and provide a nexus that caused this, which is impossible. Even though statistically, 25-35% of all veterans of any service have an increased risk of multiple cancer types, like prostate, breast cancer, colorectal cancer, and all sorts of different things.
The law was really good to help veterans who have been struggling to get this care and to have the military take responsibility for that within their service.
Did you have any other symptoms before your diagnosis?
The only other symptom was, before diagnosis, I had something in my belly button that would appear every 4 to 5 months. By the time I could get in [to the doctor’s office], it would go away. They’d say, come back when you can. By the time I could get scheduled, it would go away.
It only lasted for a couple of days and it was like a little bit of discharge from my belly button and a little bit of hair follicles. It seemed like there were hair follicles that would come out. It’s hard to explain, but something wasn’t right.
It turns out that’s right where my primary tumor was, along the sigmoid colon. It was like, this could be a correlation to that.
What happens, happens but I wish I could have got in when they could have examined that a little bit better.
Did you have bleeding?
They say the number one symptom of colorectal cancer is no symptoms at all.
You hear a lot of people with colorectal cancer say they had blood in their stool. I think I’ve only had it at one point and it’s because I ended up having an emergency stent placed shortly after diagnosis because of the situation at hand. Even then, it was a couple of times.
They say the number one symptom of colorectal cancer is no symptoms at all.
How did you react to receiving your cancer diagnosis?
No matter how much you think you know about cancer, unless you’ve experienced it firsthand or been a primary caregiver or even a secondary caregiver to someone, there are so many misconceptions about it.
It’s very vivid, even though in July, it’ll be 5 years now on this journey. I was diagnosed on July 17th, 2018. It was 2 days after my son’s second birthday, and my wife was pregnant with our third child.
I remember walking into the doctor’s office after the CT scan. They called about 15 minutes later and said, we need to see you tomorrow first thing. I go in and the doctor casually says, “I don’t know another way to put this, but you’ve got cancer and it spread to your liver.” I said, okay, took a minute, and then as soon as I walked through the doors leaving the place, it was like a rush of holy crap. I’m a dead man.
No matter how much you think you know about cancer, unless you’ve experienced it firsthand or been a primary caregiver or even a secondary caregiver to someone, there are so many misconceptions about it. I thought I was dead.
I come from a large breast cancer family. I carry a BRCA1 germline mutation. The women in my family, if they’re a carrier, they’re almost guaranteed to get breast cancer. It’s not as prominent in men. My mom had cancer, and her mother passed from cancer. I have had exposure to this, but it was emotionally devastating.
»MORE: Patients share how they processed a cancer diagnosis
How did your wife react to your diagnosis?
My wife was at the bowling alley with the kids and a friend. When I called her, she completely lost it. It was a bad, very dark time. We ended up coming home that night, my wife and I. We had my parents watch the kids, and we just held each other thinking, how much time do I have?
With 80% of my liver covered, that’s not a good situation. And I had a fully blocked sigmoid colon so they couldn’t go in and remove the primary tumor. I had to have that stent open me up before I could pass stool. Everything from there was a whirlwind getting into doctors, and getting the stent placed. It was emotionally devastating.
What were the next steps in your treatment?
That’s a little more vague to me. I do remember [the doctor] saying, we’re going to have to get you in for a PET scan, which happened the next day to confirm it. After that, I was at my local hospital system near Lawrence.
If you’re not used to it, it’s a lot to process, to listen to everything they’re telling you, and to absorb it.
Luckily, I have a doctor cousin who took me with his training. We called him and asked, “Do you have any advice?” He said, “I want you to go see Dr. Miranda at KU Medical Center,” which is the National Cancer Institute (NCI) here in the Kansas City area. It’s the only one in the Kansas City area.
He came with me to the appointment. That was a very pivotal moment in this. Going to one of the top centers in the area with that NCI rating, it’s important to have.
I work in the colorectal cancer support community and advocacy, and I heard the average time for people going from symptoms to starting chemotherapy is above 200 days, which is insane. I got in within 2 weeks. I was diagnosed on July 17th and I had my first chemo on August 1st, about 2 weeks later. I’m very blessed to have that team move that quickly.
A lot of it is very vague. It was just, go see this doctor, see this, get this scope. If you’re not used to it, it’s a lot to process, to listen to everything they’re telling you, and to absorb it.
I’m very grateful my oncologist never told me an expiration date. They did say, “You have a terminal prognosis of chemo for life and are inoperable due to your extended disease. You’ll never get off chemo and you’ll never be operated on for a curative intent. Palliative reasons, possibly, but we’ll do everything we can to extend your life.” That was a big pill to swallow
How did you come to terms with a terminal prognosis?
I don’t know if I ever fully digested it. I never believed I had cancer. It was all very surreal. I thought, is this happening? Did I get phase-shifted into some weird parallel universe? This has to be a bad dream. When am I going to wake up?
It was a lot to process. Every time I heard it, I would sigh and griff and say, “No, I don’t want to hear this. This is not my fate. I don’t foresee this being me.” It was really hard to swallow, especially every time my oncologist said, “We’ll do everything we can to extend your life, but you will be on this forever.”
»MORE: A colorectal cancer oncologist shares guidance to patients
What treatments were you on?
I was put on what they call FOLFIRINOX. Sometimes they call it FOLFOXIRI. It’s basically how the drug is administered. With colorectal cancer, if you’re not a candidate for immunotherapy, irinotecan, and oxaliplatin are the 2 big drugs [that are given], and 5-FU which has been a standard since the 70s.
I had what’s called the kitchen sink. It was a combo of those 3 drugs. I started on August 1st and I started with what would have been the first of 30 initial cycles. I did 9 of the FOLFIRINOX, then we paused to do Y-90, which is Yttrium-90. It’s a radioactive isotope of the element yttrium.
They go through your hepatic vein and your groin and they send a catheter up into your liver. It’s a liver-directed therapy where they drop millions of radioactive resin beads right into your liver where the tumors generally form based on where the blood flows. I had 2 of those in November and December 2018, then I resumed 11 more treatments of what they call FOLFOX, which is the previous one, minus the irinotecan. They wanted to drop down the irinotecan because of the 2 Y-90. It’s a lot to take on with the radiation.
It’s targeted radiation, so I ended up having 6 of the 5-FU, largely driven by blood numbers – whether my white blood cells were up or my platelets were high enough. My big issue was low platelets, something I still suffer from today, from all those treatments.
Switching treatments due to lung spots
In September of 2019, I had some lung spots show up so we switched the drug oxaliplatin. A lot of the time, oxaliplatin causes severe neuropathy. Luckily, I never had too bad of that and I ended up taking 20 cycles with that in the mix, which is a lot. Some people dip out after 4. Usually, it’s between 8 and 12 of those.
Then I started back on the irinotecan drug through a combo called FOLFIRI. We added a biological drug called Vectibix or panitumumab, an epidural growth factor inhibitor that prevents blood vessels from growing. I did 4 more treatments through December 2019, and then I stopped to break for Christmas.
Getting a second opinion led to new treatment options
Even though they had my best interests in mind, I still sought that second opinion out at the City of Hope in California. It’s probably the best decision of my life.
My story started to change through COLONTOWN, an online colorectal cancer support community. I learned about Dr. Fong who’s a liver specialist and surgical oncologist. He doesn’t do just the liver, he does a lot of stuff in the abdomen area minus the colon itself.
People kept saying, you need to go see him. I had scans in December at my local center. Even though I had a really good response to chemo, they told me, you’re going to be on chemo for life and inoperable. They were scared that if I did have liver surgery, the liver would grow back. It’s the only organ that does that and the disease would progress with that regrowth.
Even though they had my best interests in mind, I still sought that second opinion out at the City of Hope in California. It’s probably the best decision of my life. It led to a surgery that was 12 hours long in February 2020.
They removed my entire right side and a right hepatectomy and then a lower anterior resection (LAR). They removed 30 cm of colon and a quarter of my rectum with curative intent and also took my gallbladder. I had 5 ablations on my left side at the time. I had lost 110 pounds prior to that surgery.
What inspired you to get a second opinion?
It was the support group COLONTOWN. People kept mentioning it. I was holding out on hope at my current NCI center. I still actually see them to this day, but I was hoping that with that next set of scans, they’d say, we’re going to try. They never did.
Ultimately it was my wife who said, “You need to go do this. Let’s go out to California. What is the worst they’re going to say? No, and you’re still the same?” I said okay, let’s rule it out. If one of the top people in the world says no, then it’s my fate. Thankfully it wasn’t.
Cancer reoccurrence and COVID caused changes to treatment
That’s not where the treatments ended. I stopped chemo after that because I had 30 cycles and 2 liver embolizations and they said my body needed a break. About 6 months later it returned, but not in my liver or colon. It returned in my tailbone in October 2020.
I started back on the FOLFIRI with the Vectibix for 4 more cycles. On my very last cycle, my 34th chemo, 2 days later I tested positive for COVID. That was a crazy week. COVID delayed my radiation treatment.
In February and March of 2021, I had 28 full pelvic radiation sessions to the entire pelvic region, which destroyed my rectum. For 3 months, it was pretty rough. I was sitting on the toilet for 3-plus hours a day, not really living life, just stuck.
Finding hope after his son’s birth
Throughout January and February 2019, I was on a lot of treatments. My son was still in my wife’s belly at the time. I caught him about 2 hours after my eighth round of heavy chemo. That gave me a lot of motivation, wanting to see my kids grow older.
It’s a very powerful moment in my life. Seeing my son born and being able to catch him. Both my sons were born at this house. My wife did a home birth, bless her soul. I didn’t think it would work out, but it did and it really changed me. It gave me a little bit more hope in October 2018 when that happened.
Then it got dark again. I had surgery in January 2019 because the chemo destroyed my anus and caused a fistula to bore through. It caused a lot of pain.
»MORE: Parents share how they talked to their kids about cancer
Integrative medicine in cancer care
In early February, I found an integrative medicine doctor through my dentist of all people. I went to see him and he joined my team. That was one of the biggest moments of my cancer experience. Not just diet and exercise, which are important, but he also helped mitigate the side effects, which helped get through it and process it.
I had hope, even though the hope was taken out from underneath me when they said you’re going to be on chemo for life.
One of the biggest things [he taught me] was the mind-body connection and meditation called Psychosomatic Wellness, which has a lot of science behind it. I wasn’t big into that kind of stuff. I thought, “This is heebie jeebie. This isn’t going to work.”
About a month into it, I connected to it. I went somewhere. I still don’t know what to call it. Some people may call it universal energy, God, chi, soul. Whatever you want to call it, I went somewhere and connected with something. It really helped me process things.
I was able to accept life, death, purpose, and what all this means. I was grateful for whatever was to come. I carried that into this second opinion. I had hope, even though the hope was taken out from underneath me when they said you’re going to be on chemo for life. What do I have to lose? I went out to California and sure enough, it happened and here I am still.
Getting an Ostomy
Describe getting an ostomy bag
Back during the big February 2020 surgery, I had a temporary ileostomy placed which is where the small bowel dumps into a bag with a stoma. That was reversed in May 2020.
Fast forward to the radiation. In June 2021, I had an abdominal perineal resection (APR). It’s a surgery that’s known as Ken or Barbie butt. Imagine a Ken doll or a Barbie doll. They just have a straight stitch on the backside. They took my anus, my rectum, and in my case, my tailbone and part of my sacrum to get clear margins. It was successful, and it left me with a permanent colostomy bag but it’s been a blessing in disguise.
Having it removed has been great for me. I don’t sit on the toilet for 3 hours a day. I spend 60-90 seconds messing with bowel function now. I still swim 3 to 4 times a day. I get to play with my kids. I lost 110 pounds and I wasn’t sure if I’d ever gain it back, and now I’m on the other end of it. It’s been so good to me that now I need to lose a few pounds.
What types of ostomy bags are there and which do you use?
There are several types of ostomy:
- The ostomy that comes off your small bowel and avoids your large intestine.
- A colostomy, which can be placed along your transverse colon all the way down to your sigmoid.
- One-piece open bags which have a little cut-off valve that you can drain as needed.
- Two-piece drainable bags.
- Two-piece closed systems in one-piece closed systems.
I had a temporary ileostomy. At first, they tend to be more of a liquid output. They’re always on because the way the bowel works is your ileo dumps into your cecum and that’s when your stool starts to form. Before that, it’s all liquid as your small intestine absorbs nutrients. [Ileostomy is] common when people have a large surgery over a colostomy.
If you’re removing the lower part, you tend to get a stoma. That’s the medical name for the exit point. The stools tend to be more formed, it’s more predictable. I find that [colostomy] systems are a lot easier to use than the ileostomy systems.
Considerations when choosing an ostomy bag
Any closed system is not a good idea if you have an ileostomy, because you’d be changing it all day long. Whereas with a colostomy, it’s a little more predictable. It’s easier to manage. People tend to go with closed systems for convenience.
I used to be a 2-piece ostomy person for both my ileostomy and my colostomy. I’ve had about 2 years of colostomy and 3 months of ileostomy. With the colostomy, I’ve gone down to a 1-piece system.
There’s usually, a flange that adheres to your stomach. Once that gets on, a lot of people use either pastes, barriers, or protective rings to help hold that on to prevent leaking.
Leaking is the #1 thing that gets people flustered. It’s like crapping your pants and no one wants to crap their pants. It’s one of the big anxiety drivers with an ostomy. Am I going to leak? How am I going to manage this?
Also when you have a peristomal hernia. The creation of a stoma is a hernia in itself. That can cause more herniations so you want to be very careful with your abdominal wall and building your core back. When you get a herniation, you can feel it. It can lead to blockages.
With an ileostomy, you have to watch your diet a lot more than with a colostomy. Things tend to get blocked more with the ileostomy. From my experience and hearing from others’ experiences with a colostomy, people can still get it.
Leaking is the #1 thing that gets people flustered…It’s one of the big anxiety drivers with an ostomy.
If you have an ostomy, make sure you have a good hernia belt. I’ve got several. I have several Stealth belts. I also have one called a Stomaplex, which is like a stoma guard for impact. You don’t want things to hit it because it can bleed. Some people also use a Nu-Hope binder. It’s like a taller binder that goes around with a hole in it to support that and push your abdominal wall together so that you don’t herniate as often.
Is colostomy irrigation an option for some?
You cannot do it with an ileostomy, but with a colostomy, not many people are aware you can do irrigation. Instead of having to worry about having a bag going throughout the day and finding a frequency, people that are more active tend to go the irrigation route.
Imagine an enema but for your stoma. It goes all the way up your bowel track and basically gets behind the stool and you force water through it and then drain it over the next 30 minutes to an hour after that. When it drains, your bowel is empty and you can put a stoma cap on it. A lot of people are able to go hiking for 24 to 48 hours at a time [after irrigation].
Has your ostomy experience always been good?
Go out there and explore, call, get samples if you can, and find the system that works for you.
I’ve had a very good experience with my colostomy and my ileostomy. A lot of people do have struggles though, so if someone’s out there and they’re asking, “Why does this guy have such a good experience?” You’re not alone.
I struggled the first couple of months with mine before I found a nice rhythm and system. Don’t be afraid to call the 3 big companies – Hollister, Convatec, and Coloplast – and request samples. It can be very good to talk to one of their reps to find out what system works for you.
Having an option between a flat bag and a convex bag can be a game changer. A lot of people get stuck and say, “This is what the hospital gave me. How do I deal with this?” Go out there and explore, call, get samples if you can, and find the system that works for you. Because what works well for me may not work well for you.
Post-Treatment Tests & Scans
A circulation tumor DNA (ctDNA) test helped catch cancer reoccurrence
In June when I had the APR, I got the colostomy, and my Ken butt, I had about a year’s worth of no evidence of disease (NED). Then I had a reoccurrence in my lung. A spot that had been on CT scans since diagnosis, which they thought was scar tissue, initially never responded to any other thing. After all the chemo I went through, it decided to grow in May 2022.
I didn’t go on treatment because we caught it very early. I’m on a circulating tumor DNA test (ctDNA) called Signatera. Another company, Guardant, has one called the Reveal. It’s the same test, different companies. They sequence the biology of your tumor, specific to the person and no one else. The signature will never pop up in anyone else.
It can detect circulating tumor DNA in your body. It’s not cancer itself, it’s just junk DNA our body puts off, but it has that signature of your disease and they can detect if you have a reoccurrence. My tailbone reoccurrence was caught by September or October 2020.
After I went through the radiation, the chemo and more radiation, and the second major surgery, I was about a year clear. Then I had that Signatera test which detected an extremely low amount.
Is a ctDNA test for everybody?
It’s still in the testing phase. Not everyone responds the same. Their bodies aren’t as sensitive to the test.
There are also different areas of the body that put off more ctDNA like the liver, whereas the perineal may not. It’s still in flux, but it can be another tool because the normal marker for me was never above. It was always within range and it still is. It’s never varied more than a point, so it was never really a good indicator. The Signatera test has been really important for that.
COVID delayed a necessary treatment
In May 2022 when I had a spot come back in my lung that grew, COVID struck again. When I went in to get it ablated, I’d had COVID 3 weeks prior. Even though I felt better, my lungs still had some junk in them covering up the spot and they can’t ablate what they can’t see.
Then in August 2022, I had a biopsy that confirmed it was colorectal cancer in my lung and I had an ablation the same day. I was in at 6 a.m. and I was out by noon, working at 12:30. It was the least invasive. It allowed me to skip treatments by detecting them so early.
As of Monday, I had a negative Signatera test come back and I had my CT scans showing that I’m 9 months no evidence of disease and I’ve been off chemo for 2.5 years.
How does it feel to be done with chemo?
Surreal. They told me I’d never get off of it, and here I am. 2.5 years off of chemo.
How often do you have scans?
Right now it’s every 3 months until I hit 2 years. Then it should jump up to every 6 months. In 3 to 5 years, they’ll jump it up to either none at all or every year.
I plan on setting records. I’m going to be the longest person NED ever. At least that’s the way I’m setting my mind up for it.
Describe the work you’ve done since being diagnosed
I’m blessed to be where I am, and if I can help alleviate someone’s symptoms, give them peace of mind, or just provide some hope, I won’t be quiet.
I do a lot of work within the colorectal cancer support space. I’ve worked for COLONTOWN since July 2020, after I had my Dr. Fong surgery. Dr. Kaiser was my colorectal surgeon.
PALTOWN, which is the nonprofit for COLONTOWN, asked me to be on their leadership cabinet. They were forming a new leadership cabinet, a new model. There are 7 of us. I’ve been there ever since.
I do a lot of support work. I reach out to a lot of people. I do work for Man Up to Cancer. A primary goal is keeping men from isolating during a diagnosis.
I also do early-onset colorectal cancer awareness through the Colon Club. Through that group, I was in their 2023 On the Rise magazine. It lays out where we’re at and our story to raise early-onset awareness. It came with a photo shoot. I never thought I’d become a model but here I am.
I’m blessed to be where I am, and if I can help alleviate someone’s symptoms, give them peace of mind, or just provide some hope, I won’t be quiet.
The importance of expressing your emotions
Meditation, I went somewhere with it and that was my first foray into the emotional side of [my diagnosis]. I learned to accept that it’s okay to be emotional. And we should be emotional because if you push it down, it does nothing but hurt your mental health. Other people are going through this, and at this point in the game, if you have cancer, who cares?
It’s so much easier said than done, but you need to talk. Tell everyone how you feel. Some people are quieter than others. If you need to join a group and listen to other people do it, you don’t have to be active in those communities. Seeing what other people are going through can help your mental and emotional health more than anything. Some of us happen to be a little more vocal about it, but it helps to get people out of that bubble, that survival mode that we get stuck in.
A trip to Hawaii led to new revelations
In 2021, my family was gifted a vacation. During this trip, we realized that we weren’t living. We were stuck in this deep survival mode, which is mental and emotional depression. You’re living between scans. You’re stuck in survival.
It woke something up in us. We asked, what have we been doing? I’m doing all this support work, but we’re just going through the motions. We’re not really living our own lives.
We came up with the idea of going back to the Big Island of Hawaii. Then we said, we should move back there.
We came back [home], I looked at my wife and said, “I have this crazy idea. Would you ever move back, get a secondary house and host people to experience what we did?” I was thinking she was going to say, “You’re nuts, Jason. No.” And she said, “Yeah. I think that would be great.” So we started developing this plan.
I went to school for a semester on Oahu at the University of Hawaii Manoa studying anthropology and geography. It’s a beautiful place. If you’ve never been, I highly suggest going.
We were stuck in this deep survival mode, which is mental and emotional depression. You’re living between scans. You’re stuck in survival.
Connecting with a cancer retreat center
About 6 months into [developing this plan], I was looking for health care on the Big Island or through the VA because I’ll always need to go see doctors. I found this cancer retreat on the north side of Hawaii on the Kohala Crater. We said, “Holy crap. These people are doing what we thought of, except it’s a whole retreat center.” We reached out to them and they agreed to become our mentors.
Life gets busy with 3 kids and I was still worrying about that lung reoccurrence. Two days before or after my lung ablation, I finally had my VA claim accepted which lifted a huge medical burden off of my back because they’ll cover all my medical expenses. That freed up some resources.
My wife and I flew out in December to visit them as a patient and a caregiver to see what they had to offer. We really bonded with the couple. We shared our story with them. She was a cancer survivor. Her husband was on chemo for 12 years before she got with her current husband. He was a disabled veteran as well, and we really bonded.
We told them our dream and they offered to sell us the place. I went back for 5 weeks in April and March of this year to see what they meant by that, get more details, figure it out, and work on the farm. It’s also a sustainable farm that teaches food as medicine, and it has a temple that aligns with the integrative practices that I was doing, which was so beneficial to me.
After that trip ended, we came back and we now have a purchase agreement with a timeline to make that happen. We’ve got a little more money to raise and we have a timeline to do that.
My wife and I want to move our family out there, live on-site, and host cancer patients. Ultimately, it would be if we can find enough funding where it’s no cost to other people, but we’ll see how it goes once we get the next steps in place. That’s pretty active right now. We’ve formed an LLC and our nonprofit to make that happen.
What’s helped you stay hopeful throughout your cancer journey?
It’s hard to think in terms of hope when you are told, you’re not going to have any other options or it’s a grave diagnosis. Sometimes it’s hard to remove yourself from thinking way into the future. You have to just take it day by day. Take every day, even if it’s minute by minute, hour by hour. Do what you can to help yourself get through the day. Join support groups. That’s been such a big, thing.
The first thing you need to do is never look at Dr. Google. It’ll send you down a rabbit hole of despair. I had my first mental breakdown ever because I was looking at Google and looking at different statistics, then I started thinking about my kids. Avoid that.
Find your people. Find people that will lift you up and support you. A lot of people lose their support networks, especially once they’re out of treatment. Everyone thinks, I’m cured or thinks, you’re done. You’re never really done. Whether the physical stuff is over and the treatments are over, there’s going to be mental and emotional damage. Don’t dwell on that. Everyone goes through this with a cancer diagnosis. It’s okay to not be okay.
What advice do you have for someone recently diagnosed with cancer?
If I have any advice for anyone starting a diagnosis is, once you get diagnosed, it’s going to be rough at first. But once you get through that initial despair and anxiety, start setting goals. Future goals.
Something my integrative medicine doctor told me and it’s been my mantra ever since, he said, “Jason, set a goal and reach it. And once you reach that goal, set another one. Always keep your eye on the prize.”
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Barbara M., Colon Cancer, Stage 3
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Lee J., Colon Cancer, Stage 4, Recurrence
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Treatment: Neoadjuvant chemo (FOLFOX), hemicolectomy (partial colon surgery), adjuvant chemo (FOLFOX), chemo post-recurrence (FOLFIRI), liver surgery
JJ S., Colorectal Cancer, Stage 4
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