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Road Warrior of Recovery

This year, Jessica Betts celebrated her 40th birthday. It was a particularly poignant day because she almost didn’t live to see it.

“Cancer is a gift,” she says bluntly. “If you allow it to change you, it is a gift. My 40th birthday was a celebration of my friends because I wouldn’t be here without them.”

Looking back, her colon cancer journey began in her early 30s when symptoms emerged. She switched to a vegan, clean eating diet. At the time, she was unaware that her family had a history of IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and colon and stomach cancer. “There’s such a reluctance to talk about digestive health, especially among women,” she says.

In the summer of 2018, she left her job because her health issues worsened. She consulted with a respected dietitian but, looking back, she wishes she’d also gone to a doctor instead. Finally, her bleeding and pain became so severe that she consulted with her physician, who immediately referred her to a GI specialist. Jessica was fast-tracked for a colonoscopy. As she waited for the procedure, she remembers that it was Colon Cancer Awareness Month, and Katie Couric was on TV encouraging people over the age of 45 to get a colonoscopy.

Jessica’s colonoscopy revealed a three-inch mass that almost blocked her colon as well as precancerous polyps.

“If I had waited to get a colonoscopy until I was 45, I would be dead,” Jessica says.

A New Reality

Jessica’s family rallied around her and began investigating experts around the country. She met with Diana L. Hanna, M.D., an oncologist at Hoag Family Cancer Institute. She not only found an extraordinary physician but a friend. Tears fill her eyes when she describes her profound gratitude for Dr. Hanna’s immediate response to the severity of her cancer.

“She was on the phone with a surgeon that night,” she says. “He called me at 9 p.m. and said we’re going to get you in on Friday.”

Dr. Hanna arranged for Jessica to meet with Daniel A. Ng, M.D., a colon/rectal surgeon. “He outlined every scenario based on the tumor’s location,” Jessica says. After meeting with some of best surgeons in the area, Jessica chose Dr. Ng to be her surgeon.

Jessica’s mother, Virginia Trotter Betts, R.N., a former president of the American Nurses Association (ANA) and senior health policy advisor of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, had very high standards for her daughter’s care. When she traveled out to be at Jessica’s side, she was impressed by what she found at Hoag. “The only reason she let me be treated at Hoag was because it’s a Magnet® hospital,” she says. 

Jessica wasn’t off the roller coaster yet. Dr. Ng was concerned the cancer may have spread to her uterus and ovaries. He made sure Lisa Abaid, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.C.O.G., F.A.C.S., co-director of Gynecologic Oncology of Hoag Breast & Ovarian Cancer Prevention Program, was on call, ready to step in if the cancer had spread. Luck would have it that Dr. Abaid’s expertise wasn’t needed in Jessica’s case.

After the 12-hour surgery, Jessica was ready to hit the road to recovery. Thanks to her athleticism and healthy lifestyle, she was clocking in laps around the recovery floor, encouraging her fellow patients to join her.

Giving Back

Today, Jessica is cancer-free. But, her journey isn’t over yet. In fact, it’s just beginning. Through Dr. Hanna and Dr. Ng, Jessica connected with USC’s Adolescent and Young Adult Program, a patient program for patients under the age of 45 who have been diagnosed with cancer. She’s now a local leader for a young adult cancer organization, Stupid Cancer. Jessica will also be sharing her story with first-year medical students at USC.

“I’ve been telling my story on social media from the very beginning,” she says. Since then, 50 people who have seen her Facebook story have gotten colonoscopies. Three of them were diagnosed with cancer; one of them is only 28 years old.

Jessica is profoundly grateful to have been treated at Hoag. She was impressed by Hoag’s nationally ranked robotic surgery program, which uses the da Vinci® Xi System. Hoag is one of only two programs in the nation to be designated an Executive Enrichment Program for Robots by Intuitive Surgical.

“Through the connection to Keck Medicine of the University of Southern California, we have all the benefits of a research hospital in a community setting,” she says. “Thanks to the Hoag Hospital Foundation, we have access to advanced technology.”

The defining factor of Hoag for Jessica and her family was the care and concern shown to her in her time of need. The morning of her surgery, Jessica was touched by Hoag nurses, staff and leadership who stopped by to wish her well and assure her that she was in the best hands.

“I was terrified,” she remembers. “They came to see and tell me I was going to be okay. They didn’t have to do that, but that was remarkable.”

For more information on making a gift to the Hoag Family Cancer Institute, please contact Gwen Ritter, executive director of development, at (949) 764-7209 or Gwen.Ritter@hoag.org.

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