Jeannine Vannais

Colon Cancer Patient Stories

Metastatic Colon Cancer
Jeannine Vannais

Jeannine Vannais in her greenhouse

Jeannine Vannais never expected to be diagnosed with cancer, much less colon cancer. But at the age of 58, this wife and mother of two learned she had metastatic colon cancer. For many years, she studied and taught medicinal herbalism in the Philadelphia area at such places as the Bomans Hill Wildflower Preserve's medicinal trail project and the Pennsbury Manor. In her work, Jeannine protects native medicinal plans of the United States and Canada in their native habitat while ensuring an abundant renewable supply of medicinal plants for generations to come. But treating stage 4 colon cancer would require more than medicinal plants could provide, so she turned to the experts at Fox Chase Cancer Center.

In 2010, Jeannine went to her doctor because she wasn’t feeling well. After a five day stay in the hospital, she was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic colon cancer that had spread to her ovaries and liver. Although Jeannine had a lot of connections to the integrative therapy world – through the study of yoga and reiki – the piece that was missing was science.

Jeannine was looking for a hospital with the best science - so she chose Fox Chase.

“I wanted to find the hospital with the best science, including the latest clinical trials and treatment protocols,” shared Jeannine. “So I came to Fox Chase Cancer Center where I met an amazing team of health professionals to take me on this journey. I felt like I was balanced with one foot in science and one foot in spirit.”

Due to the size and precarious location of Jeannine’s tumors, she was not a candidate for surgery right away. She met with Steven J. Cohen, MD, a medical oncologist at Fox Chase who specializes in treating patients with colon cancer.  Dr. Cohen started Jeannine on a course of chemotherapy designed to shrink the tumors so that she might have surgery in the future.  

Jeannine Vannais

Jeannine and her daughter, Dory, in the kitchen.

During the many months of chemotherapy, Jeannine relied on her integrative therapy tools to complement her treatment. For instance, she could only get chemotherapy if her blood pressure was below a certain level. If she arrived in the infusion room with an elevated blood pressure, she would practice yoga breaths to relax. Fortunately, it almost always worked and she could get her much needed treatment. This was a challenging year for Jeannine and her husband, David Graham, an accomplished photographer, and their two daughters.

“Dory had graduated college and was working as the head groom in a fox hunting barn, but Xina was in high school,” recalled Jeannine. “Our community was amazing and brought us healthful meals every day.  Their spirit helped lift our family.”

By 2011, Dr. Cohen reported that Jeanine’s tumors were smaller and she met with a team of surgeons at Fox Chase – Elin R. Sigurdson, MD, PhD, FACS, with a specialty in colon cancer, and her colleague, Robert A. Burger, MD, FACOG, FACS, who specializes in gynecological cancers. Together, they would perform the delicate and complicated procedure of removing a 15 centimeter tumor in Jeanine’s ovary, along with the cancer in her colon.

“Going into surgery, my doctors didn’t know what they would find,” said Jeannine, who sprayed her body with peppermint oil to give clarity and mental focus to her surgeons. “They were able to remove all of the tumors except for on my liver which was quite amazing.”

Jeannine Vannais

During this time, Jeannine participated in four native American healing ceremonies, one that took place in Jamaica. “I truly believe that the combination of traditional therapy combined with integrative care, helped me get through this devastating disease and unfavorable prognosis.

“I can’t say enough about my Fox Chase doctors. They are compassionate, caring and extremely talented.” 

Following her recovery, Jeannine resumed her chemotherapy under the medical guidance of Dr. Cohen. She also met with Michael H. Levy, MD, PhD, director of the pain and palliative care program, to help manage her pain. “I can’t say enough about my Fox Chase doctors. They are compassionate, caring and extremely talented.” 

Jeannine admitted that when she got to Fox Chase, she was not presented with a lot of information on complementary therapies. “It was okay for me, because I knew how to care for myself outside of treatment. But I knew there must be many other patients who would benefit from integrative care. For me, my alternative therapies have worked hand in hand with science based therapies at Fox Chase.” She stressed the importance of keeping her Fox Chase doctors aware of her integrative therapies and urges other patients to do the same.

Carol Cherry, MSN, RN, AOCNS, APNG, is Jeannine's nurse navigator. In addition to her role as nurse navigator, Carol manages the Integrative Care Initiative Committee at Fox Chase. Audrey Berry, MSN, RN, a Fox Chase outpatient nurse and friend of Jeannine’s, introduced her to Carol, who invited her to join the committee. 

“I’m a very direct person and I knew that my time was limited – especially for committee work. But I also wanted to use my time and experience to make a difference for other patients,” said Jeannine. Through her participation on this committee, she is making a difference. Fox Chase launched a gentle yoga program for cancer patients and caregivers in 2012, an idea that was generated by this group. Through this committee, Jeannine has had the opportunity to work with Dr. Karen Mechanic, director of psychiatry at Fox Chase. “Dr. Mechanic offers outstanding emotional support which is vital to cancer patients and families,” said Jeannine. 

Most importantly, Jeannine is that she’s back to doing the things she loves. “I practice yoga and reiki and eat all organic food during farming season. I can cook for myself again, publish a blog and volunteer at Fox Chase.” The most exciting thing in Jeannine’s life? “My daughter, Dory, is getting married in the summer of 2013. I’m so grateful to be here to enjoy this momentous occasion with my family.”