March 9, 2022

Martin shares colorectal cancer story, urges early detection

Vanderbilt Wilson County Hospital’s Lori Martin uses her own experiences to educate patients about the importance of early detection of colorectal cancer.

As an 11-year cancer survivor, Lori Martin, BSN, MBA, RT(R), knows firsthand the importance of colorectal cancer screening.
As an 11-year cancer survivor, Lori Martin, BSN, MBA, RT(R), knows firsthand the importance of colorectal cancer screening. (photo by Erin E. Smith)

by Tom Wilemon

Lori Martin, director of Surgical Services at Vanderbilt Wilson County Hospital, often talks about her colorectal cancer experience with patients undergoing treatment for the disease, but during Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, she has a message for others.

“With COVID for the past two years, a lot of people have pushed off colonoscopies and other cancer screenings,” said Martin, BSN, MBA, RT(R). “People need to pay attention to their risk factors. Early detection is the key, so you don’t have to go through chemotherapy. Please get checked.”

Last year, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, whose recommendations are followed by major health insurers, expanded its colorectal cancer screening criteria by lowering the age from 50 to 45. However, Martin said if anyone younger than 45 is experiencing warning signs associated with the disease, they should also undergo screening. While federal law requires insurers to cover the cost of “preventive” colonoscopy screenings, which follow age guidelines, insurers will also cover the cost of a “diagnostic” colonoscopy when ordered by a physician because of symptoms that may be indicative of cancer. However, patients do typically have higher co-pays and deductibles for the diagnostic procedure.

Martin was 40 when she was diagnosed with colorectal cancer.

“I mainly just had weight loss,” she said. “The other symptoms I kind of ignored, because in my mind I was young. I wasn’t overweight. I didn’t have any of the risk factors, and I ignored the symptoms that I had. Then all of the sudden one day, I couldn’t get out of bed. I went to the emergency room. They did a CT scan, and from there, I started the whole cancer journey.”

She had stage 3 colon cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes.

“That’s scary to think that you have cancer roaming throughout your body in your lymph nodes,” Martin said.

She underwent surgery, a hemicolectomy to remove part of her colon, then six months of chemotherapy. She has now been free of cancer for 11 years. Treatment advances since her diagnosis with stage 3 colon cancer have shortened the recommended chemotherapy regimen in most cases from six months to three months.

Early colorectal warning signs include a change in bowel habits and having blood in your stool. Symptoms of more advanced disease include weight loss, night sweats, loss of energy and being anemic. Martin said she had a craving to eat ice before her diagnosis, a type of eating behavior called pica, which can be indicative of anemia. Early symptoms of rectal cancer include urgency to get to a bathroom, a feeling of incomplete evacuation and pressure while sitting.

Martin, a Lebanon, Tennessee, resident, was living and working in Reno, Nevada, when she was diagnosed. She had her spouse there, but she was away from her extended family in Tennessee.

Support groups helped her through her cancer journey.

“I went to the cancer support groups while I was in chemotherapy and learned a lot from people who had gone through chemotherapy and were on the other side of that,” she said. “Learning from others is critical and having a strong support system. If your employer has an employee assistance program, you can use that EAP for help. And now, you can get on Zoom and go to support groups. Then, I had to physically be present even though I didn’t feel well. But I gained so much support from going there that, no matter how bad I felt, I still wanted to go. I learned so much from listening.”

She said she was also fortunate that her care team took the time to explain what her diagnosis meant and what to expect during treatment.

“Something that people don’t realize about nursing is that when you go into the career field, you specialize in a specific type of nursing and stay in that realm,” Martin said. “It was nice to have an oncologist who didn’t assume I would know everything about oncology simply because I am a nurse. It was a huge learning curve for me. I had been in health care since I graduated high school at 18, but that didn’t mean I was well versed in every aspect of health care.”

Martin has a special message for health care workers about self-care.

“In health care, we always try to power through,” she said. “It’s ingrained in us that we have to show up for our shifts. When you are working, you work. People are counting on you. You don’t take a step back to think about why am I tired, why do I feel dizzy, why is my stomach bloated or why am I losing weight? All those are major red flags, but we ignore them. We think for some reason in our field that we are immune from illness because we are around it so much.”

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