A colon cancer diagnosis before age 50 shocked Betsy Jones, but she’s surviving—and thriving.
Betsy Jones had prepared herself for the possibility of breast cancer. She’d had a lump biopsied at 29, and her grandmother died of the disease. So she didn’t think twice when, in the summer of 2004 at age 48, she noticed some rectal bleeding. Like many women, she’d suffered from hemorrhoids on and off since the birth of her two children, Callie and Ben, now 22 and 21.
But Betsy, the regional director of the Laura W. Bush Institute for Women’s Health at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, had a routine check-up the following week, so she brought up the bleeding episode.
“My doctor said, ‘You’re going to be 50 in 18 months anyway—let’s just go ahead and give you a colonoscopy and get it over with,” remembers Betsy, now 55.
To her surprise, testing revealed Stage 3 colon cancer, and within just a few months she was undergoing surgery to remove the cancer and resect her colon. Her doctors also recommended chemotherapy to reduce the risk of recurrence, and Betsy opted to spread the treatments over several months rather than endure a daily regimen. “I wanted to be a well person going through this, not a sick person,” she says. “But all in all, it wasn’t my most productive year.”
There was a bright spot in this dark time, though. “I loved having my treatment by people who were my colleagues,” she says of the staff at Texas Tech, where she has worked since 1992. “It was a real honor to be their patient.”
The experience also gave her new insight into her work, which involves securing grants for women’s health and family medicine research and education, as well as teaching and developing curriculum for the medical school.
“I spend a lot of time with first and second-year medical students, and they have a course on doctor-patient communication,” she says. “Now I feel like I can speak to that firsthand: ‘Here’s how you deliver bad news. Here’s how you talk about treatment options.’ It’s given me some street cred!”
Today, Betsy is cancer-free. But she gained about 40 pounds during the ordeal. “It was the perfect storm of things that make you fat—winter, cold, people bringing you food,” she says. “And you don’t feel like being active.”
So six years ago, about a year after her diagnosis and starting to feel like herself again, Betsy decided to make some changes. “I thought, ‘I wonder if I can lose three pounds this week,’ and I did,” she says. “That little bit of achievement got me started.” She began walking for an hour a day, often on the Texas Tech campus, and hiking on family vacations.
“I was in good shape before, but I wasn’t really a consistent exerciser,” she says. “That’s the main thing I’ve come through with on the other side: I have to walk every day.”
She has also found a new mission as a cancer survivor. She enjoys passing on practical tips—like how you can eat shaved ice, a local delicacy, as part of your colonoscopy prep—as well as more philosophical advice.
“I’ve known a ton of cancer survivors, and that was extremely helpful when I got my diagnosis,” she says. “I could see it as just a bump in the road.” •