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Patient Stories

Lorna: Gastrointestinal Cancer Survivor

Lorna Gastrointestinal
Deciding to embark on a health journey in 2021, Lorna made appointments to get all the recommended screenings she had been putting off, including with her dermatologist, dentist, and gynecologist. The last appointment she was waiting for was her colonoscopy, which had been rescheduled several times. She had no family history of cancer and had an unremarkable health record up until that point, so had no concerns, but wanted to cover all the bases. Finally, after some encouragement, she went and had the procedure done. 

When Lorna awoke, she was told a polyp was removed and sent for testing, and one remained due to the location. Still, she had no concerns that anything was wrong so when she received a call the day after Thanksgiving, she was shocked to hear it was cancer. At that time she didn’t know what kind or stage, but when she heard the word ‘cancer’ she knew she wanted to be treated by physicians at Smilow Cancer Hospital and Yale Cancer Center.

“I received my masters in epidemiology from Walden University, and completed my clinical rotation at Memorial Sloan Kettering, so I had a sense of what being at an academic hospital meant, and the unmatched clinical care it offers,” said Lorna. “So, I immediately got a referral to Yale, but decided to meet with a surgeon at a community hospital as well. He had my report and told me it was a rare tumor known as small intestine neuroendocrine tumor; the same exact tumor his elderly mother had just been diagnosed with. I was in shock and when he told me his own mother was being treated by an expert at Yale, Dr. Pamela Kunz, I knew I had made the right decision.”

Pamela Kunz, MD, Associate Professor of Internal Medicine (Medical Oncology), Director of the Center for Gastrointestinal Cancers at Smilow Cancer Hospital and Yale Cancer Center, and Chief of Gastrointestinal Medical Oncology, had recently arrived at Yale. An international leader in the care of patients with neuroendocrine tumors (NETs), the timing could not have been better for Lorna, who got an appointment to meet with her.

After running more testing to confirm the diagnosis, a treatment plan was put in place. Dr. Kunz informed Lorna that NETs are rare, but that she was in the right place with a multidisciplinary team of experts that could tailor a treatment plan to best fit her needs.

In February of 2022 Lorna underwent her first surgery to remove her appendix, gallbladder, and part of her small and large intestines. Two additional tumors were also removed, and four that were found in her lymph nodes. Ronald Salem, MD, Lampman Professor of Surgery (Oncology), performed the surgery, providing Lorna with a comprehensive, multidisciplinary approach to the treatment of her complex disease.

All of this occurred over 14 months and Lorna now receives monthly injections for the long-term control of symptoms and tumor growth, which she will receive as long as it continues to work. She still has three tumors and undergoes close surveillance. Before surgery Lorna explained that the diagnosis felt abstract, as if it wasn’t happening to her. While undergoing multiple tests and bloodwork before her surgery, it was discovered that she had very high levels of serotonin, a chemical that carries messages between nerve cells in the brain through the body and can cause symptoms like diarrhea and flushing. Lorna went from taking no medicine, to now being on several different medications, and from having no doctors, to having a different doctor to help with various side effects. She also started seeing a therapist which she said was very helpful.

“In the support groups I attended I didn’t see anyone that looked like me, and that made me feel very lonely,” said Lorna. “Cancer is a very lonely experience and it’s hard to turn your brain off. It is always on your mind, surrounding everything you do, and you can’t turn it off. Therapy has been great with helping me to manage that. I never thought I would have to say the words, ‘I have cancer’ and I actually had to learn how to tell people.” 

Lorna continues to be closely followed and has scanxiety before every test, but after all that she has been through, and continues to go through, she does not regret having the colonoscopy. It means that she is still here, still fighting, and focusing on her mental, physical, and emotional needs.