A cancer survivor brings personal experience to a new job
When Eden Stotsky was 18, she started having lots of little things go wrong with her. Cramps, fatigue, alternating constipation and diarrhea, rectal bleeding, weight gain and weight loss. They occurred singly or in pairs, but happened at different intervals, so that, spread over a period of eight years, no one suspected anything was seriously amiss. For each complaint, she was given a reasonable diagnosis: a pulled groin muscle, lactose intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome. Sometimes the verdict was more far-fetched-her favorite, that she was putting too much air into her colon as she sipped through the straw of her ever-present water bottle. Each time, she would bow to doctor's orders, feel better temporarily, but inevitably return with a new set of problems.
Suddenly in the summer of 1997, all the symptoms began bombarding her at once and led up to a night that would become a turning point in her life. Returning from the gym, she climbed three flights of stairs, stepped inside her apartment and collapsed on the floor.
"I was so physically exhausted, I couldn't take another step," recalls Stotsky, who at the time was working at a job she loved as program coordinator for the Faculty, Staff and Retiree Programs at Hopkins University. "I thought, There's something really wrong with me. This is not normal."
It hardly could have been more abnormal, in fact, especially in a 26-year-old. Stotsky had stage III rectal cancer. Surgeon Michael Choti removed a tumor that was the size of an orange, and then Stotsky underwent six months of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation treatment. Throughout the ordeal, her job kept her grounded-she'd missed only a few weeks of work-and now Choti began urging her to consider becoming a health educator for the Colon Cancer Center. As her fears of recurrence receded with the approach of her five-year, cancer-free anniversary, she made the career switch.
The job has evolved since she started in March 2002. "Firsthand experience can only take you so far," says Stotsky. "It's great to be able to tell patients you've been in their shoes, but I had a very limited knowledge base. My co-workers have been great, allowing me to ask questions, sit in on consults and appointments. There's so much to learn."
Most of her patients are considerably older than she (the median age at which colorectal cancer occurs is 62). "They tell me what brings them hope, what they're scared of," says Stotsky. One of their biggest fears, she reports, is of getting an ostomy bag, "but I know to tell them now that their lives will be better for it-and I only know that because I learned it from my patients."
In addition to her direct work with patients, she is working on a number of other projects like creating a Web site, forming a buddy network that pairs experienced patients with new ones, and preparing a packet of written materials expressly for patients with colorectal cancer.
"My overall goal is to make the colon cancer staff feel like a team, and it's a terrific job. For me, I feel very fortunate to be able to give something back to the person who saved my life."
-Mary Ellen Miller
Courtesy of the Dome (December 2003), a publication for all members of the
Johns Hopkins Medicine family