At first, doctors told Janet Waxman she traveled too much, and that’s why her stools weren’t normal. A midnight visit to the hospital by ambulance uncovered something else: a blockage in her colon.
Later, as Janet waited on a gurney, a nurse within earshot was talking to someone on the phone.
“She said I had cancer,” Janet says. “And that was a nasty way to learn.”
But, Janet says, if you will be diagnosed with cancer, MedStar Georgetown University Hospital is a preferable place for it to happen, under the care of doctors like John Marshall and Patrick Jackson.
“I think the quality of the doctor and hospital where you’re treated can make the difference between life and death,” Janet says. “The doctor has to be up on all the latest.”
Throughout Janet’s cancer journey, which started in 2010, she has learned many lessons about being a patient and now a survivor. We sat down recently with Janet, who is a member of the Colorectal Cancer Alliance’s National Council, and learned her take on attitude, advice, friends, and more.
Janet, who lives with multiple sclerosis and therefore is no stranger to a serious diagnosis, first believed she could not live through cancer. She told her husband, former Congressman Henry Waxman, as much.
“I said I can’t do this,” Janet says. “I said I’m not tough enough.”
But in a leveled, confident tone only a Congressman can achieve, Henry told her she would indeed make it through, that she would of course get better. He proclaimed it without a faintest trace of doubt, Janet says.
“He wasn’t pollyanna-ish—it was a matter of fact,” she says. “And it then dawned on me, it was so crucial that this is an attitude you choose, and I decided I would be tough enough, and I willed myself.”
As a young woman, Janet was interested in the movie The Three Faces of Eve, which is about a woman with three personalities.
“It showed this woman in a troubled state, who in one way thought of herself as sweet, and in another aspect as devilish, so I knew in my head that you’re capable of being a lot of different people,” Janet says. “I just knew that now I had to become tough in a situation where I never thought I could do it.”
And, Janet says: “If you’re going to choose to be tough, choose to be the toughest of the tough.”
Janet’s closest friend is Susan, a woman who lost her husband to cancer.
“When she heard I had cancer, she yelled, ‘You are not going to die, I’m not going to let you die,’ and it was like she was willing life into me,” Janet says. “She called me every day. The support I got was very important.”
Another friend, a congressional wife who is a doctor, spent a week detangling the potential interactions between medications for cancer and multiple sclerosis, ensuring Janet would not be harmed.
“She was a real heroine in this situation,” Janet says. “She didn’t have to do that. She just took it upon herself to find out everything and argue with my doctors and carry on.”
On the flip side, Janet says, there will be people who will conduct “sick calls.” They visit because they feel required, like it’s something “they have to do”—not because they really care.
“But this is not something I have to do,” Janet says. “I don’t have to take anyone’s sick calls. I’m not the kind of person who wants anyone coming because they think they have to.”
Janet’s advice: Choose your friends wisely.
“You have to have friends who are real heroines or heroes,” she says.
“I once had a friend who told me, if you have a decorator and she gives a lot of good ideas, all you need is one good idea,” Janet says. “If I get one good idea, I’m in good shape.”
One friend suggested Janet buy herself a little something before each chemotherapy treatment, so she wouldn’t dread it.
Another friend said to ignore the survival statistics.
“That doesn’t take into account that you were strong and healthy to start with, or that you’ll follow the doctor’s regimen,” Janet says.
Another woman, a colon cancer survivor, advised Janet to go to chemotherapy at the very beginning of the day. It removed the drama from the situation.
And a neighbor, whose sister had defeated cancer, would worry about it coming back. But the neighbor shared her sister’s words with Janet.
“And the sister said, ‘So if it comes back, I’ll fight it again,’” Janet says.
The idea, she says, is to pick up a lot of ideas from a lot of people and use what works for you.
And finally …
Janet thinks it’s important to give back.
“As a Jew, there are two things that have been drilled into me,” Janet says. “One is to be kind, and the other is to make this a better world, and I think what [the Alliance is] doing fits into both of those categories.”
In March, we observe National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. Join us as we build our nation of passionate allies, fiercely determined to end this disease within our lifetime.