“Just because you have cancer doesn’t mean that you’re dying,” says Anita Whitlow with a big smile, showing the uniquely positive outlook that has supported her since she was diagnosed with stage 4 colorectal cancer in December of 2013.
Whitlow knew something was wrong when she noticed irregularities in her bowel movements. The first doctor she went to did not think anything was wrong, so she went to a second doctor who was concerned enough to refer her to VCU Massey Cancer Center. By the time 56-year-old Whitlow was diagnosed, the cancer had already spread to her liver.
The last few years of Whitlow’s life have not been easy. Having already lost her father to cancer, she endured the passing of her younger brother in July of 2014. The year before, Whitlow’s mother was diagnosed with colorectal cancer and eventually passed away in June, 2016. In February 2015, one of Whitlow’s best friends, Sandra Kirby, a 20-year Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor, died of a heart attack. Kirby’s daughter, 29-year-old Jennifer Tate, now checks in on Whitlow in her mother’s absence.
“Anita used to call my mom every morning at 10 a.m.,” remembers Tate, who reminisces about Whitlow visiting her mother’s farm. Tate now accompanies Whitlow to many of her appointments. “I’m one of several of Anita’s friends who check in on her regularly. If she doesn’t pick up her house phone, one of us is usually on the way over to make sure everything is okay.
Whitlow underwent several rounds of chemotherapy in 2014 before having part of her colon removed in 2015. She received additional chemotherapy in 2015 and recently began liver ablation therapy, which uses an image-guided probe to heat and destroy cancer cells with an electrical current.
Whitlow continues to respond well to her treatments, although she does suffer from common treatment side effects such as neuropathy in her hands and feet. Still, she is exceeding expectations for patients at a similar disease stage.
“I’ve had plenty of reasons to give up, but I choose to stay strong and remain positive,” says Whitlow. “It’s been a long and bumpy road, but I still consider myself blessed.”
Whitlow gives a lot of credit to her care team at Massey.
“I wouldn’t go anywhere else. You can tell everyone here, from the receptionists to my nurses and doctors, all really care about me and want to make sure I have the support I need to keep fighting,” says Whitlow. “I’ve even become friends with people in the waiting rooms and treatment areas.”
With her care team supporting her, Whitlow is doing her part to lead a healthy lifestyle. She is committed to losing 20 pounds through exercise and healthy eating. Trading soda for water, she goes on regular walks, often in the company of Tate, who is training to walk the Ukrop’s Monument Avenue 10k in April in honor of Whitlow and her own mother.
“Nobody ever expects to get colorectal cancer, but you need to get screened if you’re over 50 so you can catch it early. And if you think something is wrong, don’t be afraid to get a second opinion,” says Whitlow. “And if you do have cancer, be strong, stay positive and fight. Don’t give up, don’t skip appointments and always make sure you ask questions and follow up with your doctor.”