Cancer success, then a new baby

Just shy of her 32nd birthday and soon after giving birth to her son eight years ago, Jennifer Leffler learned she had colon cancer. She battled back, then a new bundle of joy arrived.
Feb. 22, 2018

Jennifer Leffler just wasn’t feeling herself, something most sleep-deprived first-time parents can commiserate with. But the feeling went on longer than it should have after her son Elliott’s birth in March 2009. She checked in with certified nurse midwife Krista O’Leary at UCHealth Women’s Care Clinic – Greeley. O’Leary didn’t like what she saw, and subsequent testing yielded an explanation no new mother – or anyone else – wants to hear. There was a mass in her colon.

Jennifer Leffler holds her baby as he gazes up at her.
Jennifer Leffler gazes at her son Beckett, who was born after Jennifer coped with colon cancer. Photo by Joel Blocker.

It was colon cancer, and it had spread to her lymph nodes, further workup showed. Leffler, with no family history of colon cancer and no genetic predisposition to it, was a week shy of her 32nd birthday. She and husband Chris were hoping for another child to share a life with Elliott; now the priority was saving Leffler’s.

The first step was surgery at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital. Martin McCarter, MD, who specializes in complex abdominal-cancer surgeries, removed the tumor and a foot-long section of Leffler’s colon. Six months of chemotherapy followed, which she did under the care of  Michael Stone, MD at UCHealth Cancer Care and Hematology Clinic – Greeley. Given her family history, youth, and general health, Stone and Leffler were hopeful that she could put cancer care behind her and get back to focusing on her family and her work at the University of Northern Colorado library in Greeley.

A scan in July 2011, though, showed a single liver tumor, which brought a different chemotherapy and a biologic called Avastin, “which is pretty nasty stuff,” as Leffler put it. It did its job in stopping the growth of the tumor, and in November 2011, she was back in a University of Colorado Hospital operating room, where McCarter removed the two-thirds of her liver surrounding the offender. This was a major operation, one Leffler described as “not a surgery I would wish upon anyone,” and it left an 18-inch scar. But the tumor was gone now.

Not done yet

By now Elliott was in preschool, and Leffler and her husband Chris were determined, as she put it, “that we would do everything we could to keep Elliott’s life as normal as we could. We didn’t hide anything from him.” This honesty once manifested a call from a teacher, who said Elliott was telling classmates his mom was going to the doctor a lot and had cancer. Might it be a case of a child’s vivid imagination? No, Leffler told her, that’s about right.

Jennifer and Chris Leffler with their sons, Beckett, center, and Elliott, 8.
Jennifer and Chris Leffler were thrilled when they were able to have a second baby. Their older son, Elliott, was counting on having a little brother and he was right. Photo by Joel Blocker.

Six months later, in May 2012, a scan lit up a spot on her lung. She considered surgery, but opted, with Stone’s guidance, for stereotactic radiation treatment under the care of radiation oncologist Joshua Petit, MD, at UCHealth Radiation Oncology – Harmony Campus. This involved a small number of targeted, high-dose radiation treatments – in Leffler’s case, three 20-minute sessions. The treatments left her with pneumonitis (pneumonia induced by radiation rather than bacteria or viruses) and radiation-induced rib fracture, common side effects. But it wiped out the cancer. She went back on Avastin, and ended up doing another surgery with McCarter, this time to have an abdominal mesh put in to shore up herniation remnant from previous surgeries. That was in October 2012. By May 2013, it looked like she had put her cancer care – which had involved a full spectrum of chemotherapy, radiation therapy and oncological surgery – behind her.

Cancer success then a new baby. Beckett Leffler in his dad's arms.
Beckett Leffler is his dad’s arms. Photo by Joel Blocker.

A year passed, then two, then three. The scans stayed clean. She had asked Stone about the possibility of having another child. He told her what she knew all too well — that her body’s been through a lot, and that it can affect fertility. But, he added, there’s no reason she and Chris couldn’t. She consulted with Natalie Rochester, MD, the obstetrics and gynecology specialist leading the medical practices at the UCHealth Women’s Care Clinics in Greeley and Loveland.

Try again

They talked through the risks. Chemotherapy can stop ovulation, but that didn’t seem to be a problem for Leffler. More of a concern was the potential of scar tissue from the surgeries or the abdominal mesh complicating the cesarean section she would need to have. She was also 39 now. Rochester was supportive, as were UCHealth maternal fetal medicine specialists from University of Colorado Hospital, who consult in Greeley once a week. The Lefflers decided to try, but without the aid of in-vitro fertilization or other fertility treatments. If it happened, it happened.

The Leffler family. Photo by Joel Blocker.

It happened: Leffler found out she was pregnant in May 2017. On Jan. 2, Beckett Leffler arrived at Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland. Rochester did the honors, with UCHealth surgeon Claire Pederson, MD, standing by in case of complications. Pederson remained a spectator: there had been little scarring, Rochester found, and the C-section incision was below the bottom of the abdominal mesh.

Leffler, whose case brings a whole new meaning to “one tough mother,” is now reminded of more standard travails of the experience. “Oh yeah – this not-sleeping thing. I remember this,” she said. “And I’m almost nine years older!”

Elliott, 8, had wanted a brother, she added.

“He asked for one for a long time,” Leffler said. “So he lucked out on that one. We were afraid he was going to move out if it was a sister.”

She said she was “nothing but impressed” with the her UCHealth providers across the board. She runs into her oncology nurses in Greeley on occasion. “This pregnancy was a gift to them, too, in many ways.”

It’s the sort of news an oncologist like Stone doesn’t get too often – cancer patients tend to be older. But there have been a few: one who beat acute leukemia as a teenager has two kids 19 years later, he said, and he’s had men beat testicular cancer and Hodgkin’s disease to go on and have children.

Jennifer and Chris Leffler kiss their second son, Beckett. Photo by Joel Blocker.

“It’s great, yeah,” Stone said. “Super that people can do it.”

Rochester said she’ll see a handful of cancer survivors or so a year, but it’s typically breast and thyroid cancers or leukemia. Colorectal cancer survivors like Leffler are rare in her line of work, she said.

“She’s super-strong and she’s a ray of sunshine,” Rochester said. “Because even though she’s had this horrible diagnosis, she’s in remission and she’s normal – it’s awesome, actually

About the author

Todd Neff has written hundreds of stories for University of Colorado Hospital and UCHealth. He covered science and the environment for the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colorado, and has taught narrative nonfiction at the University of Colorado, where he was a Ted Scripps Fellowship recipient in Environmental Journalism. He is author of “A Beard Cut Short,” a biography of a remarkable professor; “The Laser That’s Changing the World,” a history of lidar; and “From Jars to the Stars,” a history of Ball Aerospace.