In 2015, Jelena Tompkins was living her dream as a mother, wife and avid runner whose competitive spirit was surpassed only by an unquenchable thirst for life.
Tompkins’ life changed on May 23, 2016 when a colonoscopy revealed she had stage III colorectal cancer.
Determined to beat the disease, Tompkins, 34, underwent treatments and chemotherapy.
She’s been in remission, or NED (No Evidence of Disease) for four years, Tompkins exercises regularly, eats healthy foods, maintains a healthy weight and doesn’t smoke to keep her cancer from returning.
As a result, Tompkins, now 39, has been chosen to represent Fight CRC, the country’s leading colorectal cancer advocacy organization.
Tompkins is one of 24 people featured in a new “No Excuses” awareness campaign as colon and rectal (colorectal) cancers make up the second-leading cause of cancer deaths among men and women in the U.S.
As a Fight CRC Ambassabor, “I have to be comfortable sharing my story, and represent Fight CRC on social media and local media for one year,” Tompkins said.
By sharing her personal story on Fight CRC’s Facebook page, Tompkins will raise awareness of the importance of screening. Patients who are 45 and older are at greater risk and screening can prevent about 60% of deaths.
Her involvement is especially needed now. Results of a recent study conducted by Fight Colorectal Cancer and Komodo Health showed COVID-19 has delayed and postponed colorectal cancer screening. According to Clinical Oncology News, delays in colorectal cancer screenings during the coronavirus pandemic will result in a 12% increase in cancer deaths over the next five years, states a news release from Fight CRC.
Also, she is expected to share her story and discuss policy issues affecting the colorectal cancer community with Congressional members and legislative staff during this year’s Call-on Congress in Washington, D.C., scheduled for June 14-15.
Fighting CRC proved strenuous for the athlete whose energy levels fell after her first treatment, making running difficult. “I eventually had to stop because I had radiation burns that made it too painful to run,” Tompkins said.
Tompkins took a 6-week hiatus from her beloved sport to undergo chemotherapy. However, the chemo drained her physically to where she didn’t even have the energy to teach her young daughter, Maelle, to ride a bike. Also, her daily radiation treatments forced her to shorten a trip to her sister’s wedding in North Carolina.
“My husband (John) was supposed to speak at a conference in Spain and was going to bring my daughter and me with him. But, my surgery needed to happen the week of the conference so we canceled that trip. I wasn’t able to visit my grandfather-in-law before he passed because I was in the middle of chemotherapy and had to be here for my infusion,” she said.
Tompkins’ treatment consisted of pelvic radiation and oral chemotherapy. She underwent lower anterior resection surgery and had 12 inches of colon/rectum and 17 lymph nodes removed.
A temporary ileostomy was created to allow the resected site of her colon and rectum to heal. An ileostomy is when part of the small intestine is routed out the abdominal wall to create a stoma for collecting waste.
For a time, Tompkins visited the cancer center for 3.5-hour long chemotherapy infusions, then went home with a pump attached to a port that had been inserted in her chest. “That pump dispensed chemo into me for another 46 hours, then I would go back to the cancer center to have it detached,” Tompkins said.
“After I finished my last round of IV chemo, I had surgery to reverse my ileostomy and have my port removed. I could have had it reversed after two months, but I wanted to run the Bolder Boulder (annual 10K race), so we waited until after the race to do the surgery.”
Running is once again atop her list of activities. According to Gazette records, in 2018 at age 37, Tompkins finished 441st the Pikes Peak Ascent Marathon with a time of 2:29:54.
She also teaches yoga for expectant mothers.
And fighting cancer is one of her prominent activities as well, as a Fight CRC Ambassador since June.
Research studies show that personal stories are one of the most effective motivators in getting people screened for colon and rectal cancers. Tompkins’ willingness to share her own story will help debunk the myths around colorectal cancer and encourage those delaying screening to not make excuses.
According to Fight CRC President Anjee Davis, “Ambassadors bravely rally to raise awareness for this disease. We’re certain their stories will resonate with people and provoke them to look past the excuses and get screened.”
Colon and rectal (colorectal) cancers make up the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S. among men and women combined. Sixty percent of colorectal cancer deaths could be prevented with screening, according to the Fight CRC release.
Tompkins wants help inspire others to get regular cancer screenings, such as colonoscopies, to help make a difference in those statistics. Her outreach will help Fight CRC raise awareness of the importance of screenings.
“I do a lot of sharing of information about CRC, I show what it’s like to go through treatment, and how life is like after cancer on my social media,” she said. “It’s the most exciting, easiest, and least stressful way for me to be involved. I wanted to become an ambassador to take my involvement to the next level and connect more closely with other survivors while making a difference.”