Guest: Gina Neri
Presenter: Neal Howard
Guest Bio: Within days of learning she was pregnant with her 3rd child, Gina – a 39 year-old lawyer living in NYC – learned she had colon cancer. Her only symptom was rectal bleeding and she had no family history of cancer. Wanting to keep the baby, she met with several surgeons who told her that she wouldn’t be able to if she underwent traditional surgery. That’s when she explored the option of robotic-assisted surgery with the da Vinci System for a minimally-invasive alternative.
Segment overview: Gina Neri talks about being diagnosed with colon cancer at age 39 while pregnant with her third child, and the foundation she set up in her daughter’s name that aims to advocate for lowering the age at which people get screened for colon cancer.
Transcription – Colon Cancer Survivor
Neal Howard: Hello and welcome to the program, I’m your host Neal Howard here on Health Professional Radio. March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month and even though we’ve just got a few days left in Colon Cancer Awareness Month, our guest today is Mrs. Gina Neri. She’s here today to talk with us about being diagnosed with colon cancer at the age of 39 while pregnant with her third child. Thank you so much for joining us today Gina.
Gina Neri: Thank you so much for having me.
N: Now March being Colon Cancer Awareness Month, I couldn’t think of any better way to get awareness of it than to have someone who has been diagnosed with colon cancer and who’s living in and survived with it under such tremendous circumstances. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
G: First of, I would like to say that I really didn’t have any early warning signs. I was in fairly good health, working at the lawyer, busy. I had a family already, two children and a husband. And just suddenly one day, I had one instance of rectal bleeding. That luckily scared me enough to prompt me to call my primary care doctor and go in and see her right away.
N: Okay. So you were healthily afraid and you went you got something done about it. Was there any pain involved? Or this is just all of a sudden just, ‘Boom! I don’t know where nothing’.
G: Yes. No pain, whatsoever. Other than being scared, I actually felt no pain. It was mentally scary but physically I did not feel any pain or sickness or anything. It just scared me enough to call up my primary care doctor and go see her. Ultimately, it turned out to be the right move. While I was there, she took a very thorough medical exam and during that exam, she asked me about my family medical history and my health history. I have no cancer in my family and as I stated before, I was in relatively good health. Now I felt very lucky that she took the rectal bleeding very seriously because I had just carry a child a year and half ago and she could’ve chalked it up as hemorrhoid. And kind of said, ‘You know, let’s just wait, and see and take that approach at least if that happens again in the next 6 months and then do something about it’. But instead, she decided to, as a precaution, send me for some rule out testing and then have me see a gastroenterologist. But during that visit, she had gone over whether or not I thought I was pregnant and I did not think I was, and she said “Well let’s just draw in during the rule out testing, a pregnancy test just to be sure.”And that very night, surprising enough, I was pregnant. I had no idea.
N: You’ve got some very serious things deal with overnight?
G: Right. I went and saw the gastroenterologist right away. Again, I was lucky she had made the appointment for me, I was able to see him right away, in fact, within the next day or two. He immediately was concerned obviously about the rectal bleeding but also about the pregnancy. He didn’t want me to do a colonoscopy because of the anesthesia that goes along with it so I did a sigmoidoscopy, which meant I was awake during the procedure. Within a few days of learning I was pregnant with my third child and right as my husband and I were just kind of digesting that, we’d learned a few days later that I had colon cancer. What’s shocking is when I saw this big green blob on the screen, even more scary part about it is that I was actually awake and told that to my gastroenterologist, ‘What is that?’. He said in the most serious voice that I have never heard from him before is, ‘You’re looking at colon cancer’. Then my journey began, it was so scary and it was Friday at 5 o’clock so never get a test like that at that time.
N: It does sound like though your medical team, your support group acted very quickly, no hesitation, no improper diagnosis. Now you’ve become an advocate for lowering the age at which folks are getting screened for colon cancer. Being that involved as an advocate, is misdiagnosis something that you hear about in your efforts to bring awareness to colorectal cancer? It didn’t seem to happen in your experience but have you heard of any of that in your experience?
G: Yes. I was very lucky. I think that each doctor that I had was extremely on top of things and very proactive. However through my journey, I have met several people, I’m part of a support group of over 3,000 members with colon and rectal cancer. There is quite a few under the age of 50 and many of those people were misdiagnosed unfortunately, they were not taken seriously. Their doctors did take the wait and see approach or diagnose them with colitis or some other form of gastroenterology or gastro issue, and never thought of them for colon cancer because they didn’t think that, that would even be a possibility. Yes, I was very lucky and yes as part of my advocacy, I do want to spread awareness that taking a medical history and very thorough, and allowing the awareness to the medical profession just like Dr. Wishner said, we’ll encourage doctors to also think about the fact that it’s possible that people under the age of 50 could get colon and rectal cancer.
N: Now you’ve mentioned Dr. Wishner as part of your care team, your support group. When you found out that you’re pregnant, you’ve got colon cancer, big enough for you to see on the screen because you’re awake, what would through your mind as far as carrying your third child safely?
G: I was diagnosed on Friday. He was the gastroenterologist had advised me to go consult with him, of course I didn’t know who he was. He was the first surgeon that I consulted with. When I consulted with him, even he was a little hesitant but he did talk about this robotic assisted surgery and I had never heard of robotic assisted surgery. I was very interested in learning about it, but also a little leery about it at the same token. My husband and I, after consulting with Dr. Wishner, went off and did get several other opinions. We happen to be lucky to be in the backyard of New York City, so we went to several top institutions to consult with other surgeons who advised us, the majority, of them to terminate the pregnancy and have the surgery the next day and it was very scary.
N: You obviously elected to do something much different. After many of these opinions, did you come back to Dr. Wishner and have the surgery? And if so, what type of surgery did you have?
G: I ended up going back to Dr. Wishner. I also did my own independent research on the robotic assisted surgery. I felt like, one of the things that Dr. Wishner said during my consultation which I’ll never forget is, ‘I’m a surgeon. I’ve been doing this for 25 or so years and I have a very steady hand and a precise cut. But would you want a surgeon with 99% precise cut? Or would you want a test surgery with a 100% precise cut?’ And of course, I want a 100% (laughs) especially under the circumstances because I wanted to keep my pregnancy and my baby more than anything. So yes, I went with the robotic assisted surgery.
N: Were there different types of robotic assisted surgery offer to you as options or was there one that stuck out as the glaring option?
G: I don’t know if there exist any different for colon and rectal cancer, that would definitely be a question for my surgeon. But I know I used the da Vinci system of the robotic assisted surgery, that I do know.
N: With the colon and the uterus in such close proximity, part of the reason that they suggested that you terminate your pregnancy was because it was so close and because it was so traditional surgery being so invasive. Did your own research, where there other forms of invasive surgery that were I guess a little bit less invasive than the normal traditional that you could have gone for before the robotic surgery?
G: Right. I could have done a laparoscopic procedure as opposed to an open procedure which might have been less invasive also. But again, that would have been with a surgeon’s hand using the equipment. Again, I’m not saying that the surgeon wouldn’t have done a good job, of course we’ll never know, but I didn’t go that route. But I was convinced especially after hearing what Dr. Wishner had said about the 100% precise cut. I was adamant that that was the best way to go and ultimately, I think it was the best way to go.
N: We touched on your advocacy a little earlier in our discussion. You’ve started a foundation that deals with young people as far as screening colon cancer in general. Talk about this foundation that you started.
G: My foundation actually isn’t fully in existence yet, but I’m in the process of opening it and starting it. It’s called ‘Gianna’s Hope’, in the name of my daughter, her name is Gianna Hope. Basically, it is to support and spread awareness about colon and rectal cancer for the people under the age of 50. I have a vision and ambition to distribute information but to advocate to lower the age of testing for colon cancer. I also believe that through time, there’s going to be more and more people that going to find themselves pregnant with colon cancers since there’s an increase in this younger population getting colon cancer. I want to be able to help those that find themselves pregnant with colon cancer because I was lost and I really didn’t know what to do and I was fortunate that my husband and I had some time and money to do some investigating and traveling to try to meet with different experts. We also did our own independent research, but it shouldn’t maybe be that difficult but it was. It was one of the scariest decisions of my life, I hope I never have to make any type of decision like that before and I want to just be able to help people if I can.
N: What is the one thing you’d like to tell these women that are going to find themselves pregnant and fighting cancer at the same time just like you? What would you like to tell them when they first hear the news? What type of support would you like to give them today?
G: Well I’d like everybody to understand that they are their own self advocate. They know their own medical history better than anyone and that they need to listen to their body and if something isn’t right, they should go and see a doctor and follow up on it. And if for some reason, the doctor is telling them something that just doesn’t make sense to them, they should go seek another opinion. Also, if for some reason, somebody else is ever devastated like I was and find themselves with cancer and pregnant whether it’s colon cancer or any form of cancer, there is a registry out there called ‘Hope for Two’, and that is certainly, a very nice starting point to gather some support under this unfortunate predicament and then maybe that will help them at least to learn or get some comfort from other people who have been through this journey and also join some Facebook support groups about colon cancer and pregnancy, or colon cancer in general because there’s a lot of people out there who been through this. Maybe not the pregnancy portion but there are people’s been to colon cancer before, and this people can help, guide, support, pray, listen, and be there for them when they’re going through some really tough times.
N: Well I sure appreciate you coming in and speaking with us today.
G: Thank you very much for having me and covering such a very important topic.
N: You’ve been listening to Health Professional Radio, I’m your host Neal Howard in studio with Mrs. Gina Neri. We’ve been here talking about her story, her recovery, and the breakthrough surgery known as the, ‘da Vinci Method’ that has her back on her feet and doing very well. Transcripts and audio of this program are available at healthprofessionalradio.com.au and also at hpr.fm. You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes. Listen in and download at SoundCloud.