A Second Chance

January 14, 2019

A dedicated team of experts helps a Hackensack woman beat advanced colorectal cancer.

When Tia Harris-Winfrey, age 39, of Hackensack noticed blood in her stool, she didn’t know what to think. At first it went away, but when it returned even worse, she phoned her gastroenterologist, Aditi Chhada, M.D., affiliated with Hackensack University Medical Center. In July 2017, Dr. Chhada performed a colonoscopy and found a tumor. A biopsy the next day confirmed Tia had cancer.

Dr. Chhada referred Tia to Andrew Jennis, M.D., co-chief of Gastrointestinal Oncology at John Theurer Cancer Center, part of Hackensack University Medical Center. Dr. Jennis ordered imaging tests to determine the size and extent of Tia’s cancer. Her disease was localized to her rectum and nearby lymph nodes. That meant it was curable.

DEVELOPING A COMPREHENSIVE PLAN

“When we determine that the cancer is localized, then the most important goal is always to cure it,” Dr. Jennis says. “The plan was to give Tia chemotherapy initially followed by radiation therapy prior to surgery. Not only would this regimen give her the best chance for a cure, it would address a number of other important objectives. Hopefully, the chemotherapy and radiation would shrink the tumor, making it easier to remove and maximizing the chance that Tia’s bowel functioning could be preserved. Chemo and radiation before surgery also lowers the risk that the cancer will recur in the pelvic area in the future. Additionally, patients undergoing radiation before surgery instead of after tend to tolerate it better and have fewer side effects.”

Tia — a wife, mother and special education teacher — was determined to follow her regular routine as much as possible during treatment. She continued to work during eight rounds of chemotherapy, followed by six weeks of radiation plus chemotherapy. She and her husband, Gary, received much support from family and friends, and remained hopeful. “I’m a very positive, goal-oriented person,” Tia says. “My dad was a cancer survivor two times over, and he had so much strength. That’s what I thought of the entire time. We’re firm believers in God, and we put it in God’s hands. We supported each other and said this is the way it’s going to be.”

CONTINUALLY MOVING AHEAD

Tia and Gary were thrilled when tests showed the chemotherapy and radiation shrank the tumor. Next, they consulted with Martin Karpeh Jr., M.D., chair of the Department of Surgery at Hackensack, who collaborates often with Dr. Jennis.Dr. Karpeh examined Tia, and the two agreed on a plan to remove her rectal cancer. In March 2018, Dr. Karpeh performed laparoscopic rectal surgery using small incisions to remove Tia’s tumor and adjacent lymph nodes. Fortunately, he was able to preserve her anal function and help her avoid a lifelong colostomy.

Tia, now age 40, finished her cancer treatment in July 2018 after four more rounds of chemotherapy. She says her dedicated team at John Theurer Cancer Center helped her get her life back. “Dr. Jennis is so passionate about his work and such a theoretical thinker — he really puts in the time to develop the best plan for you,” she says. “And it paid off: He saved my life. And Dr. Karpeh — when I was in the hospital, he came to see me every single day. The amount of care this man showed me was amazing.”

COLLABORATION IS THE KEY TO SUCCESS

Dr. Karpeh says a multidisciplinary team approach is key in giving cancer patients like Tia the best chance for a good outcome.

“The medical oncologists need the surgeons and the surgeons need the medical oncologists to give patients their best shot at a cure, particularly for rectal cancer,” he says. “Most cancers of the rectum that invade the rectal wall beyond the superficial lining often require chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. And we really need to coordinate how we do things. For instance, we don’t like to operate too soon after radiation because you don’t often get to evaluate the full effect of the treatment if you operate sooner than, say, four to six weeks after the completion of radiation. Certain chemotherapies can affect surgery, and so even the choice of drugs, particularly for colon cancer, may influence when we operate.” Today Tia is taking full advantage of her good health. While teaching students with disabilities, she is also pursuing a master’s degree in teaching. When she’s not working or studying, she attends her 10-year-old son Xavier’s football games, exercises at the gym, and spends time with friends and family. “God has given me a second chance at life,” she says. “I’m so thankful for that.”

READ MORE SUCCESS STORIES

See cancer patients like Tia tell their health stories in their own words at HackensackMeridianHealth.org/CancerPatientStories.