Just two weeks after celebrating his thirty-third birthday, Jason Hungerford learned that he was a member of a singular group of people: the one percent of colorectal cancer patients under the age of forty.It was on a Monday in May 2010. Jason expelled a significant amount of blood with his stool. Alarmed, he went to see his primary care physician, Dr. Adam Law. “While I was sitting in Dr. Law’s office, he picked up the phone, called Dr. Peter Brennan, a gastroenterologist, and talked to him directly,” says Jason. “Dr. Law said, ‘I have a patient here who needs a colonoscopy sooner rather than later.’”
Jason had the colonoscopy the very next day at Cayuga Medical Center. “My nurse, Rachel, was very reassuring,” Jason continues, “and even Dr. Brennan said he was not expecting to find anything in someone my age, except maybe internal hemorrhoids.” But what Dr. Brennan found was a large polyp, too big to remove during the colonoscopy. Tissue samples were sent to the pathology lab and two days later, Jason was back in Dr. Brennan’s office. It was cancer. “I knew that my life would be changed forever,” Jason remembers. “I started to cry but quickly composed myself. I wanted to hear clearly what the doctor was telling me.
“Dr. Brennan had already made an appointment for me to see a surgeon the next day. This all happened in the span of a week,” Jason adds. “My doctors took care of all the medical stuff; I just had to show up…and get better.”
Jason had his surgery on June 4 and returned home after a nine-day stay at Cayuga Medical Center. “The hospital staff was amazing,” he says. “All of the doctors, nurses, and aides were wonderful. They showed compassion; they really cared about the outcome, which made the stay a lot easier. “As a gay man, it can be scary going into a hospital,” Jason adds. “Some places don’t allow a partner to be there and be involved. My partner, Jason, was there through the entire process. I never felt weird or uncomfortable about anything. That’s just not the case everywhere.”
The tumor was successfully removed but because the cancer was located in the rectum, not the colon, Jason’s doctors recommended both chemotherapy and radiation therapy. A few days after leaving the hospital, Jason met with oncologist Dr. Tim Bael. They discussed the stage of Jason’s cancer (2A), the treatment, and the likelihood of recurrence. “I got a second opinion from Weill Cornell, which Dr. Bael encouraged me to do,” says Jason. “He advised that I see a colorectal cancer specialist and I did. She agreed with what Dr. Bael had told me, though she recommended oral chemotherapy instead of IV.” When Jason returned from New York City, he started radiation and oral chemotherapy simultaneously.
Radiation oncologist Dr. David Cho, who is also a member of the staff at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, joined Jason’s care team. “I had daily radiation for five and one-half weeks,” remembers Jason. “Dr. Cho was always available to me, even on the days I wasn’t scheduled to meet with him. He’s very friendly, personable, and knowledgeable. And the radiation therapy technologists are wonderful, friendly, and fun,” adds Jason. “I miss them, actually.”
After seeing a volunteer from the Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes in the Radiation Medicine waiting room day after day, Jason finally inquired about the Men’s Support Group. “The first time I went to the support group, I was afraid I’d be the only young person there. Well, yes, I am the youngest person—but I was immediately embraced by the group. The guys show a lot of compassion and they’re funny.
“I would never say I’m glad I got cancer, but without it I never would have met these people; our paths would never have crossed,” says Jason. “I’ve been so thankful for everything along the way. I’m doing great, my prognosis is good. But it’s still hard for me to deal with at my age. The average age of onset for colorectal cancer is seventy; you don’t even start screening for it until age fifty. I’ve met with Dr. Garbo, who is in practice with Dr. Bael, to talk about further genetic testing. No one else in my family has colorectal cancer…I need to know as much as I can about why this. happened.
“I feel so blessed and lucky that I live where I live,” says Jason. “I’m grateful I was able to get all of my care in Ithaca. We have a very high quality medical center here filled with people who do their jobs well and with such care for their patients—from the techs, to the guys who wheel you down the hall, to the surgeons.”
No matter how statistically improbable a cancer diagnosis may be, Cayuga Medical Center has the resources to achieve the best possible outcome.