The Widmer’s, widely known as the “golfing” family of the Cayman Islands, are a very close knit family that spend a lot of time travelling and competing together. Twenty-four year old Samantha Widmer is known as one of Cayman’s most motivated and talented young women. She has won the prestigious title of Top Female Golfer in the Caribbean and was recently a Young Caymanian Leadership Award Finalist.
Having encouraging and supporting parents, like Peter and Susan Widmer, was a source of strength for Samantha and her two younger brothers, Johnny and Jack. However, nothing could have prepared them for the shocking news… that their own mother had stage four colon cancer.
Married for 35 years, fifty-four year old Sue Widmer was the picture of good health. Head of the Art Department at the Cayman Prep & High School and also a local artist/ costume maker, Sue began to feel fatigued from work and other activities. Persistent fatigue is one of the most commonly experienced cancer symptoms. It occurs early in certain cancers such as colon or stomach and is usually more common when the cancer is advanced. Anemia, associated with many types of cancer, especially types affecting the bowel, is frequently the culprit. Fatigue is a symptom of both malignant and non-malignant conditions and should be evaluated by a physician.
Sue’s loss of energy and some issues with her bowel prompted her to visit her doctor. Being that she was healthy, not overweight and feeling slightly sluggish, she thought her trip to the clinic would be routine. Her doctor requested that she did a sleuth of blood tests including a CA125. A CA-125 (cancer antigen 125) is used as a tumor marker, which means the test can help show if some types of cancer are present. Sue’s doctor called Samantha and asked her to attend the doctor visit to find out the test results. When Sue returned to her doctor for the test results her CA125 marker was high.
Having had no family history of cancer, the family was left bewildered. How could this have happened when Sue’s dad was still alive at the ripe old age of 88 years? Sadly, most colon cancer cases are not related to genetics or family history; they just occur sporadically. Sue was still in shock and saddened by the news, but was very determined to “get rid of it” and move on with her life.
Pete and Sue were directed to a doctor that specialized in chemotherapy for colon cancers. It was determined that it would be best to shrink the tumors and then have an operation to remove them once they were small enough to be contained. Surgery can only take place after chemotherapy, and not before, unless a number of weeks are separating the two procedures. If effective, the chemotherapy not only kills the cancer cells, but also the healthy cells in the body, which can lead to additional complications.
Even though Sue was weak and tired, she felt it was necessary to financially support her family so she worked through her entire nine months of chemotherapy; fighting through tummy aches and nausea during the school day. Nausea affects around half of all people being treated with chemotherapy, which can cause the normal wave-like action that moves stool through the bowel to be faster or slower than usual. When the action is faster, the stool is less formed and can cause cramping and/or diarrhea. On the other hand, a slower action may cause stool to travel slower, becoming harder and dryer and more difficult to pass. This may contribute to constipation resulting in achy or cramp-like feelings likely associated with increased flatulence (gas). Chemotherapy may also alter the normal bacterial flora that is present in the intestines. This can affect digestion and cause abdominal pain, cramping or flatulence.
Sue battled through two years of several operations, tests, chemotherapy and living in a hospital. The chemotherapy was effective at shrinking the cancer tumors and so surgery was the next step to remove the cancer. She had many highs and lows, which were draining on the entire family as they watched her endure this ordeal. In spite of all this, Sue kept a smile on her face which caused the nurses and doctors to call her, “the woman with the most hope and determination. Her love for life and her family was extraordinary.” Having a loving husband and kids made her feel supported during this terrible time.
The teachers and students at Cayman Prep were very supportive and often stopped in at the hospital to spend time with their beloved teacher. This lifted her spirits and gave the Widmer family some much needed rest away from the hospital. The family would split visitation times so that Sue would always have someone with her. Samantha would go during the mornings and afternoons, which provided an opportunity for her to develop a stronger bond with her mom. Peter, the devoted husband, would be there at nights to tuck his wife into bed and make sure she always felt the endearing love he had for her. Everyone tried to make Sue’s experience as realistic as it would be at home. Sue was determined to keep going on with her everyday life and keep her spirit alive.
Sue recovered from the chemotherapy and had a very lengthy, but successful surgery by an amazing doctor out of the Bahamas. He was a ‘dream come true’ for the family that did not know whether such a meticulous and difficult surgery could take place. After spending a number of months out of hospital and returning to her full time job, Sue experience a second wave of complications which put her back in hospital. After a large iliostomy (unheard of to many medical experts), additional surgeries due to blocked intestine and over six months in full-time hospital care, Sue’s body was tired and eventually lead to her passing in June 2011.
For Sam it has been a very tough experience losing her mom. There are days when she misses her a lot but due to the strong family bond, they all continue to encourage each other to stay positive. Sam has made a real effort to support her dad and brothers because as she states, “Men tend to keep feelings inside and it is very important to listen to their feelings and concerns. We spend time doing things together as a family and have become a great support system for one another. Even though Mum will not be with me when I am married and I have my own children, I know the legacy she left behind will live on through us and she will be by our sides each step of the way. The time I got to spend with my Mum during those last few months was priceless and something that will be a constant reminder of her determination and passion for life.”
Sam’s Advice to Everyone
I want everyone to know that cancer can affect anyone, at any time. Good genetics and feeling healthy does not make you any less likely to experience cancer at some point in your lifetime. It is very important to have regular checkups and blood tests done to catch problems before they escalate. A few points that I have learned from the experience are: (1) many mother’s become so involved with their kid’s lives that they forget about taking time to make sure they are healthy and strong; (2) if a family member does experience an illness such as cancer, it is vital that you ask all the unanswered questions or bring up uncomfortable topics up for discussion because there may not be another opportunity; (3) never give up hope in the amazing doctors and nurses that dedicate themselves to saving lives; (4) Research – just because your hospital or doctor has limited knowledge on an issue, doesn’t mean you have to. Write to hospitals, doctors and other medical facilities to see if they specialize in any of the issues your family member is facing. Spread the word on social media sites or reach out to old friends that may be able to assist in finding doctors or raising funds.
Given that 3 out of 4 colon cancer cases occur in people with no known genetic cause or family history, colon cancer screening should be a priority for every adult. The American Cancer Society (ACS) and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that both men and women at average risk of developing colorectal cancer (i.e. no family history and few, if any, other risk factors) begin screening for colorectal cancer soon after turning 50, then continue getting screened at regular intervals.
If that doesn’t convince you to take action now, then consider this. The five-year survival rate for people, who are detected with colon cancer in the earliest stages, when it is still confined to the colon, is over 90%. If cancer has metastasized (spread) beyond the colon to other distant areas in the body, five-year survival falls to an alarming 9.8%.
From these statistics, it is evident why colon cancer screening saves lives. Regular screening can find colon cancer early, when treatment is most effective and gives a chance of a longer life. Talk to your doctor about scheduling screening as soon as possible.
The Cayman Islands Cancer Society is dedicated to increasing the level of awareness of everyone on the various ways of preventing colorectal cancer through presentations. These are offered free of cost to companies and their employees, schools, clubs and church groups. If you wish to schedule a presentation or need to find out more about screening methods and/or risk factors call Victoria on 949-7618.