When Jennifer A. Donovan Calhoun and Lynda Lee Brown-Sabalboro graduated from Watertown High School in 1990, they treasured a friendship built upon years of hanging out together that over the years grew to sharing their dreams.
“We were childhood friends,” Mrs. Brown-Sabalboro said. “And when we got to high school, we ran in the same clique. We were always together at pep rallies, games, slumber parties — that type of thing.”
“There’s a group of us who have been friends since fourth or fifth grade,” Mrs. Calhoun said.
After their WHS graduation, the pair moved apart but stayed close through social media, phone calls and texting. Mrs. Brown-Sabalboro married a soldier, Hector Sabalboro, and eventually settled in Hope Mills, N.C., working as a registered medical assistant at two facilities.
Mrs. Calhoun settled in Clayton, where, with her husband, Gregory, she helps to run a construction and landscape company.
Both women raised children.
This past summer, the friends and former 1990 classmates realized they shared something else. Both, within weeks of each other, were diagnosed with colon and liver cancer. Both cancers are stage 4.
Mrs. Calhoun, 47, was diagnosed on July 1, and Mrs. Brown-Sabalboro, 48, on Aug. 19.
“It makes you think, how both of us the same age, the same time,” Mrs. Calhoun said. “That’s kind of bizarre.”
Locally, friends and families have rallied for both patients, planning fundraisers for each, one today for Mrs. Calhoun, and the other Oct. 12 for Mrs. Brown-Sabalboro.
The strength of their friendship has been a blessing as the women face their cancers and treatment — miles away from each other but thoughts for each other close to their hearts.
“Jen is amazing,” Mrs. Brown-Sabalboro said in a Monday phone interview. “I like to think I’m a positive person. But she is like … how can I say this? Jen is the type of person where, even if you’re in a bad mood you’re not going to be in a bad mood around her because she’s so positive and she’s so good. Like, nothing is going to get her down.”
Mrs. Brown-Sabalboro’s sister, Kristy Jo Sipos, Watertown, has been the intermediary between the two patients.
“She’s my sister and best friend,” Miss Sipos said. “We’re really close.”
“She’s our rock right now,” Mrs. Brown-Sabalboro said of Miss Sipos’s efforts.
Miss Sipos, the main organizer of the Oct. 12 benefit, said that Mrs. Calhoun often calls her to check on updates about her sister.
“She gave me a bunch of knowledge on how to help Lynda with things like food and emotionally and mentally,” Miss Sipos said. “She taught me all about chemotherapy and everything.”
‘SHE THOUGHT I WAS LYING’
It was Miss Sipos who told Mrs. Brown-Sabalboro that her close friend and classmate had the same type of cancer.
“She thought I was lying to her,” Miss Sipos said.
“At first I thought, ‘She has to be kidding me,’” Mrs. Brown-Sabalboro said. “Like, maybe she’s trying to make me feel better.”
Mrs. Calhoun encouraged Mrs. Brown-Sabalboro to tackle her diagnosis head-on.
“I’m not a good patient,” Mrs. Brown-Sabalboro said. “I work two jobs. I don’t have time to be sick. I’m that type of person.”
But Mrs. Brown-Sabalboro said her friend has motivated her.
“She’s very inspiring. Even though I feel like this has got to be happening for a reason, there’s going to be a good outcome, as strange as that may sound,” Mrs. Brown-Sabalboro said. “I believe this is happening to me, whether it’s because I can help somebody or advocate for other colon cancer patients — I don’t know, but I truly believe that something good will come from this. And to be able to share it with Jen, that’s even better.”
Mrs. Calhoun said she told Mrs. Brown-Sabalboro: “‘You have to lean on people. They’re not there for bad reasons. They’re there because they want to help. And you’re going to need their help. You need to lean on them.’”
She added, “I have a huge support system. That helps. It really does.”
Mrs. Brown-Sabalboro is equally grateful for her support.
“It seems like the support from my hometown is just amazing,” she said. “It’s amazing how many people have reached out to me, or to my sister, Kristi, especially to try to get in contact with me. It makes my heart so happy.”
Mrs. Calhoun and her husband, Gregory, have four children and one grandson. Earlier this year, they lost a grandson in North Carolina to a rare disease at 12 days old. The couple expects another grandchild to arrive within weeks.
Mrs. Calhoun said her July 1 diagnosis came out of the blue.
“I didn’t have one ounce of symptoms,” she said. “When the doctor told me it was probably in there for over a year, I just looked at him like he had two heads. This is alarming to me.”
Last year, the American Cancer Society updated its guidelines for colorectal cancer screening. Among the changes, the society says screening should begin at age 45 for people at average risk. Previously, the guideline recommended screening begin at age 50 for people at average risk.
“That’s a start,” Mrs. Calhoun said. “Forty would be nice, but it’s a start.”
The ACS lowered the age to start screening after analyzing data from a major analysis led by society researchers. The numbers showed that new cases of colorectal cancer are occurring at an increasing rate among younger adults.
Mrs. Calhoun encouraged people to explore their family histories and to ask questions.
“I told my husband that a lot of people come from split families and you have to go back to your past,” she said. “A lot of that is difficult for kids nowadays. They’re going to play puzzle pieces. But to put those pieces together, it’s crucial.”
For colon cancer screening, people are considered to be at average risk if they do not have a personal history of colorectal cancer or certain types of polyps, a family history of colorectal cancer, a personal history of inflammatory bowel disease, a confirmed or suspected hereditary colorectal cancer syndrome or previous radiation treatments to the abdomen.
Mrs. Calhoun said that she does have family histories of breast and prostate cancers.
“I have mammograms every year due to knowing that history,” she said.
For the past several years, Mrs. Calhoun has been treated for two other diseases: liver hemangioma and Stevens-Johnson syndrome.
Liver hemangioma is defined by the Mayo Clinic as a noncancerous (benign) mass in the liver. Symptoms include pain in the upper right abdomen, feeling full after eating only a small amount of food, nausea and vomiting. Mrs. Calhoun had a biopsy done five years ago related to her liver hemangioma diagnosis. She said she started out with two cysts and now there are four.
“They haven’t changed in the past two to four years,” she said.
Stevens-Johnson syndrome is a rare, serious disorder of skin and mucous membranes. The Mayo Clinic says symptoms include fatigue, fever and sore mouth and throat.
“I’ve been going to a specialist for the past 10 years for those,” Mrs. Calhoun said. “I don’t understand how they were missed.”
Mrs. Calhoun said she was in the process of scheduling a routine scan of her liver related to her hemangioma, when on July 1 she felt ill.
“I called my husband at work and told him I didn’t feel good,” she said.
She said he asked if he should come home. Mrs. Calhoun said she waved him off, telling him she had their grandchild with her and that she would “figure it out.”
“As the day went on, I didn’t get any better,” Mrs. Calhoun said. “The pains kept getting worse in my stomach.”
She thought maybe it was a case of gas or maybe her gall bladder.
“I put it off until six o’clock when I was severely doubled over in pain,” Mrs. Calhoun said.
Her husband took her to Samaritan Medical Center, where she was told she had an intestinal blockage. A computerized tomography (CT) scan followed.
“The doctor came in and said, ‘I don’t like what I see,’” Mrs. Calhoun said.
A colonoscopy and surgery were scheduled for her.
Mrs. Calhoun said parts of her colon and intestines were taken out.
“He took out 22 lymph nodes and 13 came back positive,” she said.
Cancer often starts somewhere else in the body before spreading to lymph nodes.
For her liver cancer, Mrs. Calhoun was referred to Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, where she met with an oncologist surgeon. She said she was told to start chemotherapy first before the surgeon scheduled liver surgery because the cancer was so aggressive. After her sixth chemo session, surgery will be scheduled, where she said more than half of her liver could be removed. Those chemo sessions will conclude in mid-October.
About a month ago, Mrs. Calhoun had genetic testing performed on her and her cancers came back “non-genetic.”
“I’m like, ‘I don’t get it,’” she said.
She shared her bewilderment with her doctor. She said he told her, “‘If you did understand, we’d have it cured.’”
A RARE SICK DAY
Mrs. Brown-Sabalboro, who has a strong family history of cancer, said she was having some abdominal cramping and bloating in August, which was unusual for her. Meanwhile, she was busy getting her youngest son, one of three, prepared for his first year of college.
Some digestion issues followed her earlier symptoms.
“A couple days later, the pain and bloating got worse and worse,” she said. “I had to leave work. I have a pretty high pain tolerance so it was pretty abnormal for me to have to leave work.”
It was the first time in nearly a decade she missed work due to illness.
Her husband took her to Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg. She received her diagnosis on Aug. 19.
“Cancer was not what we thought we were going there to find out,” she said.
On Aug. 23, a surgeon removed a cancerous mass from her colon.
“He wasn’t able to get the masses off my liver,” Mrs. Brown-Sabalboro said. “So, we’re hopeful the chemo will take care of that.”
Her first chemotherapy session was scheduled for this past Wednesday.
Mrs. Brown-Sabalboro said the double diagnoses of the same cancer and stages of Mrs. Calhoun and herself make her wonder and to look back to her childhood. Mrs. Calhoun grew up on Academy Street and Mrs. Brown-Sabalboro on St. Mary Street.
“I wonder if it has something to do with the way we grew up or how we grew up or where we grew up,” she said.
Mrs. Calhoun manages to keep an active life during her treatment. Mr. and Mrs. Calhoun own Absolute Landscape and Construction, and she’s also involved with a rescue farm and does commercial cleaning on the side.
“I’m not going to take it lying down,” Mrs. Calhoun said of her cancer diagnoses. “I’m going to push through it.”
She has experience with such a health struggle. In the summer of 1998, she was left in guarded condition at Mercy Hospital with a fractured pelvis after a car crash that killed the 18-year-old driver. Three other teenagers were injured. Troopers at the time said alcohol and speed were factors in the crash on Route 155, Rodman.
Mrs. Calhoun said she was paralyzed for a year-and-a-half after the crash and was tutored at home for her WHS classes. Her only complication now from the crash, she said, is an unstable pelvis.
“I was told I was never going to walk again,” she said. “I didn’t give up. I walk perfectly fine now.”
Mrs. Brown-Sabalboro said that her friend and former classmate encouraged her to talk to a Times’ reporter about their coincidental cases.
“If we can help even one person by telling our story, that’s an amazing thing,” she said.
The pair may have more stories to tell. It involves an arrangement they’ve made.
“We have a little plan where when we’re both past the chemo point, the two of us are gonna try to take a trip together somewhere,” Mrs. Brown-Sabalboro said.
She was asked if she had any particular destination.
“I’m not a big trip taker because I work all the time,” she said. “But anywhere. Anywhere is fine — to be able to celebrate us.”