When Jovannie Lorenzo was diagnosed with colon cancer at the age of 32 in 2012, it was a devastating shock. She had been experiencing symptoms for months – low energy, pain and swelling on her side, losing weight – but as a single mother of three, she kept telling herself she must just be tired and overworked. She started working out at the gym to raise her energy levels, but was losing weight drastically and began to see blood in her stool.
Finally, she went to the doctor, and after a test to determine that she was in fact bleeding internally, she was told she should have a colonoscopy done. But because of her age, Lorenzo was told that the procedure would not be covered by insurance; most typically cover the routine preventative screening for patients over 50. The test would cost $2,000, so she put it off.
“I delayed it and got sicker and sicker,” the Teaneck resident remembered. “Then one morning I woke up, it was March 29. My side was swollen and I was in an excruciating amount of pain. I pretty much told myself that morning, I wasn’t going to live to see the next day. That’s how I felt — I waited too long, I’m going to die today. It still feels so real.”
Six months after she began seeing the first symptoms, she went for the colonoscopy. It found a polyp and a flap, which was sent for a biopsy. The next day she was told to come in for an MRI. That Friday, she left work to go to the doctor’s office and find out the results. She wouldn’t return to her job at the Women’s Rights Information Center in Englewood for another six months.
“I knew something was wrong when I saw the doctor standing outside the office, opening the file, shuffling pages, closing it, then opening the file again. My heart just sank,” she said. “He told me ‘You have cancer.’ At that moment, your world stands still.”
After a few weeks to prepare herself and her three young children, she had surgery May 17. The pathology report confirmed her lymph nodes were clear and she was released, but just two days later she was in the emergency room with an obstruction and infection at the surgical site. While there, she received the news that surgery was successful and the cancer was gone.
Since then, she’s had three more obstructions that have landed her in the hospital on heavy doses of antibiotics. “Unfortunately, I am prone to obstructions now. I have to be very careful with what I eat, stress in my life. I had to cut out red meat. I can’t eat Italian food, anything acidic. My system is different, but I’ll deal with it, I still have my life,” she said.
Despite the difficulty of the diagnosis, surgery and recovery, Lorenzo said it changed her life for the better. “I’m a big believer in everything happens for a reason, and though this was one of the most difficult things that has happened to me, I’m grateful for it,” she said. “You learn to see life differently, see the world differently. You learn to truly love unconditionally, appreciate life for what it is and not stress about the little things in life. Everyday I open my eyes is a gift. Every milestone with my kids, I’m happy to be able to see it.”
Lorenzo likes to say a hashtag changed her life. After her recovery, she would often post on Instagram tagging pictures with the words “colon cancer survivor.”
She began to get inquiries from people and meet other survivors on the social media network. Then last year, someone contacted her from the nonprofit company Fight Colorectal Cancer (Fight CRC), inviting her to a March 1 event in New York City called One Million Strong, held to kick off colon cancer awareness month and celebrate the more than one million survivors of colorectal cancer.
“I took the day off. It was my birthday about a year after the surgery and went to the event carrying a sign that said, ‘Today is my birthday. I’m 33 and cancer free,’” Lorenzo said. “I felt like I was with family. There were other survivors there, there were people who lost loved ones, and everyone just welcomed me as if they knew me forever. As I was there, I felt my heart healing. The more you talk about it, the more you heal and the more you can get through it.”
She stayed in contact with Fight CRC and this March was invited to visit Washington, D.C. to go to Capitol Hill and speak with congressional members.
At first, Lorenzo said, she was unsure of what to say, but she soon realized she had already been advocating – through sharing her story and encouraging people to get a colonoscopy. She lived with cancer six months longer than she should have, and wants to ensure others don’t go through the same experience she did.
“One in 16 Americans will be diagnosed with colon cancer. That’s a huge number, and the thing about it is it’s preventable with early screening,” she said. “Yes, it’s a horrible process, but it is one day of discomfort for the rest of your life. Unfortunately because we’re such a ‘go go’ society we don’t make time for ourselves, we don’t listen to our bodies. I should have gone to the doctor and said ‘These are my symptoms. I need a colonoscopy,’ and really pushed for it. Now I do it for others, so they can hear my story and want to get checked.”
In July, Lorenzo went back to Washington, D.C. for advocacy training and to meet with representatives. Fight CRC is pushing to remove any barriers that may prevent people from getting screened and is championing a bill that would ensure Medicare covers the removal of polyps found through colonoscopies.
“Medicare patients are not getting their colonoscopies because if they get one and a polyp is found and removed, they are being charged for it,” explained Lorenzo. “They are taking what should be a preventative measure and making it diagnostic.”
While in Washington, Lorenzo met with New Jersey Congressman Donald M. Payne Jr. who is leading a movement called 80 percent by 2018, which aims to have 80 percent of Americans screened for colon cancer by 2018. “The only way to do that is removing all of these barriers,” she said. “If you’re over 50, get your colonoscopy, if you’re under 50 and having symptoms, go to your doctor, talk to them, and ask for your screening. You are your number one advocate; you know your body.”
Now Lorenzo is planning a One Million Strong event for next March here in New Jersey. She hopes to bring it to Teaneck and celebrate the community that helped her and her family through one of their most difficult times.
“I would love for it to be in Teaneck because the way the community rallied around me and the kids, I’m forever grateful. The love and support we got was amazing. I would really love to be able to bring an event here showcasing Teaneck and the amazing community I’m blessed to have,” she said.
Plus, Lorenzo added, the color for colon cancer awareness is the same shade of blue as the high school mascot and the official Teaneck seal. “I want to turn Teaneck even more blue,” she said. “It was meant to be here.”
Although it’s not easy sharing her story, Lorenzo said she hopes she reaches people and makes a difference.
“It opens up the wound again each time, but when I hear people say ‘You shared your story and I went and got tested,’ then it’s worth it,” she said. “I know I can’t save the world, I can only talk about what I’ve been through. People ask, ‘How can you turn something tragic into something positive?’ But through all this I found my voice. For me, it’s about saving lives.”