Jenessa Schwartz had been pregnant almost constantly since 2009, either with her own children or as a surrogate mother. Periodically, she experienced subtle discomforts like nausea, as well as anemia and a low vitamin D level.
“After my son was born, I had nausea in the evenings, and I would just say, ‘I’m breastfeeding—that’s it.”
Any person in Jenessa’s position might attribute these issues to pregnancy. But in March 2017, she was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer at 34 years old.
“Looking back, I could have caught the symptoms sooner,” Jenessa says. “That’s the most important thing I learned. Don’t explain away symptoms. If you’re having any symptoms that are concerning, talk to your doctor.”
From the day she was diagnosed, Jenessa felt support from her family and community—near and far. As a middle school teacher at Yavneh Day School in Los Gatos, California, her colleagues were among the first to know of her diagnosis.
“Everyone was shocked because I’m so young and healthy,” Jenessa says. “And then I told them that colon cancer is an epidemic among people my age now. People didn’t know that.”
Indeed, 11% of colorectal cancer patients are under age 50, and the number is rising. Researchers don’t know why.
En masse, colleagues inquired about colonoscopies.
“We joked we should get a group discount rate,” Jenessa says.
Curiosity soon came from the students, too.
“They are concerned about me,” Jenessa says. “And they’re really, really interested.”
As Jenessa charted her journey, she shared it with students. She explained the digestive track and handed out erasers shaped like colons.
“Oh, that’s what the colon looks like,” the student would say, according to Jenessa.
She explained an ileostomy and showed them her scar. When her hair started to fall out and she shaved her head, they heaped support upon their teacher.
One student was absent the first day she was bald.
“She came back a day later, and she said, ‘OMG you’re bald,’” Jenessa remembers. “And I said, ‘yep,’ and she said, ‘you’re so beautiful.”
Jenessa says this education is important, as children are rarely around sick people.
“It’s scary when people are sick,” she says. “So one day when they have to visit someone in the hospital, they’ve already had daily contact with a sick person, and they’ll know that sick people are just people.”
Her family, too, provided support, with her brother starting a Blue Star Tribute fundraiser. Every donor received a wristband. Jenessa and her family have so far raised more than $9,000 to support the Alliance’s life-saving mission.
On her page, Jenessa writes:
On March 27th, 2017, my life was officially split into two eras, BC and DC (Before Cancer and During Cancer). And because I fully intend on living through a third era, AC (After Cancer), I want to do everything I can to support the research being done on colorectal cancer.
“It got pretty big,” she says. “People I don’t even know are wearing my wrist bands.”
She attributes a lot of the support to the tight-knit nature of her Jewish community. She grew up in the same town and went to the same school where she teaches now. Mothers in the community have organized a meal train that continues to this day, she says.
Even in Jerusalem, a friend was at the Western Wall and handed one of Jenessa’s bracelet to another person who was praying.
“My community has awed me throughout this process,” she says.
At home, she’s gradually taught her son and daughter—who were 4 and 6 years old, respectively, at her diagnosis—about cancer. She says she explained it simply at first, over breakfast.
“We gave them pancakes,” she recalls, “And I said, ‘I’m ill. I have a thing called cancer, and it’s in my belly, and I’m going to start treatment, and the treatments will make me feel yucky.”
At first, when Jenessa started treatment, she says they were scared of her. Their mom had tubes coming from her, after all. But she showed them her ileostomy and G-tube.
“My daughter was really funny,” Jenessa says. “She said, ‘I want to see it, but I don’t, but I do, but I don’t.’”
Jenessa is continuing treatment. Her children now know that when she goes to chemotherapy, it’s hard, and they’re very kind to her when she is home.
“I wouldn’t wish this disease on anyone, but I think my kids will be better people for it,” she says.
It’s possible that many people will be better for it, from Los Gatos to Jerusalem.
Check out Jenessa’s blog, “My Colon Cancer: Semicolon, Not Full Stop,” on WordPress.
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.