Veterans Turned Colorectal Cancer Warriors
Most people struggle their whole lives to find their true calling. Jennifer Kimmet and Dan Shockley are two veterans who have found it twice. Both found their purpose in the military and have found a second purpose as an ally in the colorectal cancer community through the Colorectal Cancer Alliance.
“With respect, honor, and gratitude, we thank those who have paid the ultimate price for serving our country and protecting our freedoms,” said Michael Sapienza, Colorectal Cancer Alliance CEO.
U.S. Air Force Veteran, Jennifer Kimmet
Seeing a chance to do something different in her life, Kimmet joined the Air Force immediately after college. Currently serving as Chief of Medical Formal Training on Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio,Texas, Kimmet has been serving since 1988. During her career, she has been deployed multiple times, serving as a flight nurse in Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
“It’s an honor to bring our wounded warriors home. That’s what kept me in all these years,” Kimmet said. “It’s a tough job, physically, and emotionally. But it’s the most amazing job that you will ever do.”
In 2015, Kimmet began experiencing blood in her stool occasionally. She put it off until after her stepson’s wedding, when the bleeding continued unabated for about two months. Since she was approaching 50, the standard age to start screening for colon cancer, her physician recommended a colonoscopy.
“I remember I woke up during the procedure, and I was looking around the room. There were all of these extra people in the room. They were staring up at the TV in the room, and then I made a comment like, ‘that’s not a good sign,’” Kimmet said. “The surgeon said, ‘I will be talking to you soon,’ and they gave me more meds and put me out.”
Diagnosed the week before Thanksgiving with stage 3b colorectal cancer, life sped up for Kimmet. Her surgery was scheduled for the week prior to Christmas, followed by a temporary ileostomy. With radiation, Kimmet’s tumor was downsized to stage 1.
“Being in the military while going through this was great because I didn’t have to worry about my medical (benefits). I didn’t have to go through anything with insurance,” Kimmet said. “I was very privileged and I knew that I was going to get well taken care of. I didn’t have to worry about losing my job.”
Although it wasn’t required, Kimmet continued working because it helped her feel normal. And normal for her was getting up in the morning and putting on her uniform.
“It was interesting, trying to adapt,” said Kimmet, discussing being on active duty in the Air Force. “Right now I struggle wearing my combat boots because of the neuropathy. Military uniforms aren’t made to accommodate ileostomies and my scars were sore. I ended up wearing maternity pants. These are little things that people don’t think about.”
While doing internet research, Kimmet learned about the Dallas/Ft. Worth Undy Run/Walk on the Colorectal Cancer Alliance’s website. Last year, she participated virtually because she is still undergoing chemotherapy. She also participated in the Colorectal Cancer Alliance’s Buddy Program, a peer-to-peer mentor program for survivors and caregivers on their journey through diagnosis and treatment―becoming a true ally.
“I asked for a Buddy, just to have someone to talk to and to help me understand what I would be going through. It was extremely helpful to me,” Kimmet said. “I’ve returned the favor since then. I have two other friends of mine who are also vets and have been diagnosed with (colorectal cancer). I want people to understand that they don’t have to be afraid and they can live their life.”
U.S. Navy Veteran, Dan Shockley
Two years out of high school, retired U.S. Navy Veteran and Sacramento-based Dan Shockley enlisted and spent 22 years serving his country. With a specialty in telecommunications, he has served in Operation Desert Storm and was stationed in Bahrain from September 2001 to September 2003, in direct support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Shockley retired from the Navy in 2003. While checking in with a Veterans Affairs hospital for medical records, he began having annual physicals at 43. He didn’t experience any symptoms except for an unexpected weight loss of 14 pounds, which he attributed to his busy work schedule. After a routine colonoscopy, 100 polyps were detected. His medical team also provided genetic testing, during which it was discovered that Shockley also had AFAP, Attenuated Familial Adenomatous Polyposis, a rare genetic mutation that leads to colon cancer.
“It was so much information, I had to break it down in phases. My military training was very helpful with this. I had to improvise, adapt, and overcome―which is a motto from the marines,” Shockley reflected.
After extensive surgery, Shockley no longer has colon cancer. During his diagnosis and treatment, Shockley reached out to several organizations for more information about colon cancer and gene mutation. One of them was the Colorectal Cancer Alliance. Shockley has become an unrelenting ally for patients and survivors, becoming a Buddy to mentor other survivors through their own survivor journeys.
“My life is like that movie, ‘Pay it Forward,’ especially to the medical community. Anytime I can give back, that’s what I do,” said Shockley.
Shockley has testified in front of Congress twice on behalf of colorectal cancer patients, sharing his journey and the importance of early detection in hopes that uninsured and underinsured patients are able to get a colonoscopy.
In 2017 alone, over 135,000 people are expected to be diagnosed with colorectal cancer and nearly 50,000 people are expected to die from colorectal cancer. Colorectal cancer is highly treatable, if detected early.