John Donegan's Story: Surviving an Unlikely Diagnosis

John Donegan, a police officer and married father of three, was diagnosed with colon cancer just before his 49th birthday. With no family history, John never considered colon cancer a potential threat to his health. Of his 25 closest relatives, there were only two incidents of cancer – both of which were breast cancer. Given his age and lack of genetic predisposition, colon cancer was the least of John’s health concerns.

After putting on some pounds that led to increased lethargy, John focused on weight loss to improve his health. When shedding weight didn’t recapture his lost energy, he went to the doctor. His doctor asked about his lifestyle, diet and any health issues. John mentioned his recent healthier lifestyle habits that contributed to his weight loss. He also mentioned (what he considered) benign changes in his bowel movements. He had seen blood a few times over the course of six months and noticed changes in stool shape, but nothing severe enough to warrant concern, much less a doctor’s visit. Although he was younger than the recommended age for a colonoscopy, John’s doctor suggested the procedure as a precautionary measure. John was hesitant at first. He had no experience with the procedure or the disease. Other than a few commercials seen during football broadcasts, John knew very little about the effects of colon cancer and now it might be a part of his life.

John relied on support from his family and his colleagues to prepare him for the colonoscopy and the impending results. Several of his fellow police officers had dealt with cancer scares and many had undergone colonoscopies. His co-workers’ stories and his doctor, Dr. Alan Mushnick of The Endo Center at Voorhees in New Jersey, eased John’s mind going into the procedure, giving him hope that, regardless of the colonoscopy findings, John would be okay.

The colonoscopy revealed stage 2 colon cancer, and based on the size of the cancer, the doctors believe it to have been present for at least three years. John and his family were shocked. He was, for all he knew, healthy one minute and a cancer patient the next.

“Here I am, everyone’s healthy, life is going well and then I get hit with this,” says John. “But you just figure out the next step.”

There was nothing to prepare John and his family for this diagnosis, but now that they heard it, they were determined to act quickly to defeat it.

John worked with Dr. Mushnick and a team of surgeons to determine his treatment plan. Surgery was recommended as the first treatment option. John and his wife spoke with Dr. Khaled El-Badawi at Virtua Hospital the Monday after his Thursday diagnosis to schedule his surgery. Through the operation, the surgeons discovered John’s cancer was in a different location than suspected. The course of treatment was altered to include an aggressive radiation protocol followed by a more targeted surgery.

John is now a third of the way through his six-week treatment plan and is expected to make a full recovery.

“My doctors say I’m still young,” says John. “If you’d ask me if 49 was young 15 or 16 years ago, I would have said 'no'.”

But at 49, John feels lucky that the cancer was found before it metastasized. He attributes his recovery to his exceptional care team at the Endo Center at Voorhees and Virtua Hospital, who provided clinical and emotional support during his diagnosis and treatment.

John, like many adults facing a colon cancer diagnosis, had no background information about the disease, including symptoms or preventable measures. Although It is one of the most preventable disease, colon cancer too often goes undiagnosed and causes unnecessary deaths.

“If there is one thing I hope people learn from me, it is to get screened and always go to the doctor,” says John. “What’s the worst that can happen? They tell you you’re healthy. That’s the dream.”

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