Eyvette Lopez Hetherington was an unlikely candidate for colon cancer. The 44-year-old Houston attorney and mother of two was seemingly healthy and fit, underwent annual physicals and had no family history of colon cancer. Yet, the signs were there.
As a young lawyer in her 20s, Hetherington began experiencing epigastric pain in her upper abdomen, for which she saw a gastroenterologist. When she began seeing blood in her stool, her physician at the time attributed it to a fissure in her colon. A self-described Type A personality, Hetherington chalked up her GI issues to stress and thought she could manage her symptoms through diet. For the next 20 years, her condition would improve, and then worsen, again and again, sending her back to her doctor every three to five years.
Fast forward to summer 2015. On a family vacation in Colorado, Hetherington was fatigued. She was seeing more blood in her stool and experiencing upper abdominal pain. When she returned to Houston, she made an appointment with Nancy Behazin, MD, a gastroenterologist affiliated with Memorial Hermann Ertan Digestive Disease Center in the Texas Medical Center.
Hetherington describes Dr. Behazin as “the best doctor on the entire planet,” adding, “She is thoughtful and conscientious. The initial consultation took about an hour, and the whole time, she just listened.” Dr. Behazin prescribed tests, including lab work, an EGD (upper endoscopy) and a colonoscopy. One test revealed Hetherington’s gall bladder was underperforming and needed to be removed. Hetherington thought she had finally found her culprit. Nonetheless, Dr. Behazin recommended Hetherington undergo the colonoscopy.
Hetherington recalls waking up in the colonoscopy recovery area and the shock she felt upon hearing her diagnosis. “Dr. Behazin explained that she found a tumor in my colon and said, ‘It looks serious. We biopsied it and sent samples to the pathologist. But I have taken the liberty, assuming you’re agreeable, of making an appointment for you with a great surgeon, Dr. Das, who’s right down the street.’”
Shocked and scared, the Hetheringtons immediately headed to the office of Memorial Hermann-affiliated surgeon Bidhan “Biddy” Das, MD, whose confidence and friendly demeanor they found comforting. He referred Hetherington to Julie Rowe, MD, an oncologist affiliated with Memorial Hermann Cancer Center. Dr. Rowe ordered a CT scan of Hetherington’s chest and abdomen, to make sure the cancer was localized.
Shortly thereafter, Dr. Das performed surgery to remove Hetherington’s tumor, along with a segment of her colon and the surrounding lymph nodes. The cancer had spread to one of these lymph nodes, indicating Hetherington had stage 3 colon cancer.
Dr. Das performed the surgery laparoscopically, using small instruments inserted through a 1-inch incision in Hetherington’s abdomen, taking great care to minimize disruption of the bowels. Instead of using narcotics for pain control, Dr. Das laparoscopically inserted a needle into Hetherington’s abdominal wall, injecting a local anesthetic to block pain. The combination of these two techniques prevented Hetherington from experiencing a common postoperative complication called ileus that causes the bowels to temporarily shut down, resulting in nausea, vomiting, abdominal discomfort and prolonged recovery time. Hetherington was released from the hospital within 40 hours of her surgery and made a swift recovery.
Three weeks after Hetherington’s surgery, she met with Dr. Rowe to discuss treatment options. Dr. Rowe prescribed the chemotherapy drug oxaliplatin, to be administered intravenously via a port to be worn 24/7. Hetherington completed 11 rounds of chemotherapy in seven months.
As a result of the chemotherapy, Hetherington developed neuropathy, a condition occurring when peripheral nerves become damaged or disrupted, that caused her to lose feeling in her hands and feet. Dr. Rowe put Hetherington in touch with Syed Jafri, MD, an oncologist affiliated with Memorial Hermann who had recently opened an integrative medicine clinic to complement his oncology practice. On Dr. Jafri’s recommendation, Hetherington began acupuncture treatments, which helped ease the symptoms of her neuropathy.
Integrative medicine is an adjunct to traditional medicine (including chemotherapy) that combines non-traditional methods and techniques, including lifestyle modifications, diet, exercise, acupuncture, herbal remedies, meditation, breathing techniques and spirituality. They can be used to help prevent illness, to help a patient recover from illness and to prevent recurrence of an illness. They are most effective when patients are motivated and, as Dr. Jafri points out, “Cancer is a big motivator.”
Her four physicians unanimously agree that Hetherington is a motivated patient. To reduce her chances of cancer relapse, she resumed exercising, took up yoga, began a regular meditation practice and significantly reduced her intake of red meat, consumption of which has been linked to colon cancer.
Reflecting on her journey, Hetherington says, “It was the worst year of my life. But I had an excellent support network that included my entire family and other parents at my kids’ school, including two who were battling colon cancer themselves. My husband slowed down his demanding work schedule to spend a lot more time with me and the kids. It’s ironic that during this time when I felt so physically terrible and mentally defeated, I also felt tremendously loved and blessed with these incredible people in my life.”
Today, Hetherington is cancer free and feels stronger every day. She’s a big fan of her four physicians and of Memorial Hermann in general. “I appreciate the personalized attention I received. I wasn’t a cog in the machine. I could call any of my doctors, day or night. They were there for me.”