April 6, 2022

Story by Marj Locker, Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune

The old saying, the best things are worth waiting for, doesn’t apply when it comes to health screenings. Sometimes waiting too long ends in misfortune.

Ludlow’s Johanne Blackburn, while living in Canada, had a colonoscopy in her early fifties. It was a traumatic experience that involved 15 minutes of pain. She wasn’t put to sleep and pain medications did not work. She was told afterwards that she should repeat the process in five to seven years.

With memories of a very traumatic experience, Johanne wasn’t motivated to repeat it. “Ten years went so fast, I thought it had been seven years,” she related about the length of time between screenings. American doctors prompted her to get screened and were surprised about the methods of her first procedure. She was comforted with the information they shared with her about getting another colonoscopy.

Life got in the way for Johanne. Marc Anderson, her husband, was suffering terminally with rheumatoid arthritis and she was his primary care taker. She put thoughts of a colonoscopy on the back burner. It nearly cost her her life.

In 2013 Johanne began experiencing symptoms that she endured for nearly a year. The symptoms included cramping, sometimes sharp in her abdomen, pale skin and bowel issues. “My skin was green, I couldn’t get any color, especially in the mornings,” she said. She finally scheduled a colonoscopy.

“With regular screenings, we can detect and remove precancerous polyps or catch cancers at a very early stage, reducing colorectal cancer deaths by 60-70 percent,” said Dr. Todd Moore, surgeon at Saint Luke’s Health System.

The results were grim. Stage three aggressive colorectal cancer. Surgery was scheduled immediately. Dr. Todd Moore of Saint. Luke’s Hospital removed a foot of her colon and about a dozen lymph nodes using laparoscopic methods that left small scars. Another medical surprise for Johanne who envisioned a much more invasive course of action.

Eleven chemo treatments followed, although twelve were scheduled. Still caring for her husband Johanne felt she had to take a month off from treatment so she was strong enough to care for Marc. “Skipping a month saved my life. I had lost too much weight,” Johanne theorized. Trying to save her life and care for her ailing husband was taking a toll.

“You don’t stop,” Johanne said about life during treatment. She continued, “Marc was my rock, but I couldn’t help him. My sister came to help me. It was like any other challenge. You do what you have to do to survive. Find your strength and go get it.”

Although this tale sounds tragic, there was a silver lining for Johanne. She found many good friends through the process. “The real heros are part of the recovery team. I survived because of research, dedication and care in the hands of my team of doctors and nurses.” To this day she remains good friends with her team.

Johanne said she never cried. She told herself to get over it. She said, “We have the power. The strength is in ourselves.” She related that she is a spiritual person who believes in something higher. This helped her find h e r strength.

She would need that strength. Her husband passed in 2015 and that year a tumor was found in her brain. “It was the only time I was really scared,” she said about the diagnosis. But, things turned out fine when the tumor was non-cancerous. In 2016 it was believed her cancer had returned in three different spots, but Johanne “banked on being fine.”

Fine she was. Three surgeries found that none of the spots had yet produced cancer. Screenings had once again save her life.

Today, Johanne is a different person physically and mentally. “I am much more in the present. I have decided to take control. When things go wrong, it’s not so bad now. I don’t dwell on it. Now I know my strength and I have found grace. I have more empathy for others who are ill and I think good thoughts. Anything is possible.”

Physical changes have also occurred. Johanne eats a more plant based diet, although she does enjoy her fish, chicken and eggs. She works out on a regular basis at Any Time Fitness in Chillicothe with her trainer Travis Darr and reports that she has gained four pounds of muscle mass. For those who know Johanne, she has always been a petite person.

Today this 70 year old is thankful and enjoying her life while tending to sheep, creating art and watching wildlife on a golden pond behind her house. She is an outside person who loves animals and finds comfort hanging out in a barn. She has had no recurrences and goes back yearly for a checkup.

For adults at average risk, the American Cancer Society and U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommend starting colorectal cancer screenings at age 45. Anyone with a family history of colorectal cancer or a history of polyps should begin screening at age 40 or 10 years before their first-degree relative was diagnosed.

Find your strength. Get screened.

Read the story in the Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune: Finding Strength Within

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