Chuck Gaidica with Christy McDonald
March 17, 2022

In Jamie’s Memory: Christy McDonald Shares Her Family’s Personal Journey with Colon Cancer and the Importance of Early Screening

Show Notes

Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the U.S., and although the death rate from colorectal cancer has been dropping for the past 30 years, it is still the second leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. The overall lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer is: 1 in 21 for men and 1 in 23 for women. These statistics are quite staggering, and with each number also comes a very personal story of the effects of colorectal cancer. We want to share one of those personal stories with today in hopes of raising awareness and providing information on screening, warning signs and more.

On this episode, Chuck Gaidica is joined by Christy McDonald, a well-known Metro-Detroit TV personality to discuss her experience with colorectal cancer through her late husband Jamie Samuelson’s diagnosis.

Transcript

Chuck Gaidica:
This is A Healthier Michigan Podcast, episode 102. Coming up, we discuss a very personal experience with colorectal cancer and the importance of early screening.

Chuck Gaidica:
Welcome to A Healthier Michigan Podcast. This is a show that’s dedicated to navigating how we can all improve our health and wellbeing through small healthy habits. We can start implementing right now. I’m your host Chuck Gaidica.

Chuck Gaidica:
On this episode, we’re talking with Christy McDonald, an Emmy award-winning TV journalist, a 23 year career in Detroit. We’ve crossed tracks in many ways. So it’ll be a joy to have her here. She’s here today to talk about something that has become a mission. It’s very passionate for her. It’s early colon cancer screening. Christy’s husband, Jamie Samuelson, a beloved sports talk radio host at 97.1 The Ticket, FOX 2, writing for the Free Press. He passed away at age 48 after a 19 month battle with colon cancer. And so she’s here to share and encourage all of us because March is colorectal cancer awareness month. Christy, it’s good to see you.

Christy McDonald:
It’s great to be with you, Chuck.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah. How are you?

Christy McDonald:
You know what? I’m doing well. Thanks for the question. And I think sometimes that can always be a loaded question. How are you doing?

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah, I know.

Christy McDonald:
It’s every day and I think for a lot of people who’ve experienced grief. It never ends, there’s never an ending point and it just changes. But we’re doing okay. I have three teenagers and we navigate the teenage life and with missing Jamie, it adds a different layer that can be really difficult at times, but we’re doing all right.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, there’s so much we can talk about. And because of this month, speaking about this, there’s a certain preconceived notion, even for a man of my advanced age, I tend to think it’s a certain age, you should start thinking about a colonoscopy and all that. And yet in just the past year, we’ve got a friend who did a bike ride across the country to help raise awareness. Dave Klein, who’s the chief photographer at Local 4 because his buddy’s wife has colon cancer. We have a friend that’s in her mid-thirties going through a journey with surgery and chemo and all kinds of things. So this idea that this is just for people over 50 or 60, or it’s coming somewhere down the road, not necessarily the case when you see the statistics today.

Christy McDonald:
Yes, absolutely. The number of early-onset colorectal cancer cases have doubled since the late 90s. So we’re talking about people in their twenties to forties. They’re getting it. It wasn’t on our radar, Chuck. Because Jamie and I were in our mid-forties and we were thinking down the road, but they just dropped a screening age this year to 45 instead of 50. So it’s one of those things that if we can start to really get people aware, to start thinking about it and just have it on their radar now, even if they are not 45 yet yeah. That they can start to have these conversations with their doctor.

Chuck Gaidica:
And I think we’re past the point. You would think we are. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me thinking this way that everybody think, oh, it’s a big deal and you’ve got to drink the stuff the night before. It’s not that big a deal. And we’ve said that multiple times in various ways on-air, off-air, but it really isn’t that big a deal.

Christy McDonald:
Yeah. I tell people, I’m like, you know what’s a big deal? Cancer’s a big deal. Chemotherapy is a big deal, going through those kinds of treatments. Colonoscopy is very easy, but it involves a part of the body Chuck, that nobody wants to talk about and I totally get it, but it is an easy process. And then you’re asleep while it happens. And then you wake up and then hopefully they say, come back in five years, come back in 10 years. Or they come to you and say, gosh, we got something early. So again, the fact that we have this tool to be able to see what’s happening inside of our bodies, to make sure that you’re okay, don’t be scared about it. Again, it is a very easy process.

Chuck Gaidica:
And the idea of getting ahead of this, when you see the statistics, it’s still the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States. You have this ability to take this test the colonoscopy and hopefully like you’re saying every five years, you’re kicking the can down the road. But at the same time, the numbers of people, 1 in 21 men, and 1 in 23 women are at an overall lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer. Maybe it’s because of the nature of what we’re talking about. We don’t really share this at tables with buddies and friends necessarily, right? But those statistics, 1 in 21, and 1 in 23 that opens my eyes when I see those numbers.

Christy McDonald:
It’s happening. It’s happening to people and you may not realize it. And the thing that is concerning to me as well, is when younger people, the cases you talk about a friend in their thirties or in their forties. By the time they find it, because it isn’t on a younger person’s radar, they’re more apt to push away. Oh, I’ve got some abdominal pain, it’s probably nothing, or something’s changed in my bathroom habits, it’s probably nothing, that when they actually do find it’s already at an advanced stage. And colorectal cancer is treatable. This is a treatable cancer if it is found early, but the longer that people delay and there’s opportunity for this cancer to grow. And you and I know, cancer is so difficult once it’s spread to bring it back down, but it is treatable. So again, the encouragement, the awareness, knowing that it can happen, don’t want to scare anyone but want to make sure that they’re present about it and say, all right, what’s my plan in place if I’m not there yet. This is what I’m going to do for myself and for my family.

Chuck Gaidica:
The personal story is so important for you obviously and your kids, but can you share with us how this journey unfolded the best way you can and how you feel comfortable sharing? Was it a surprise for you? How did it start with Jamie?

Christy McDonald:
Absolutely. It was a shock, Chuck, because Jamie was 47 years old, the healthiest guy on the planet, it felt like, and he would laugh if he heard me telling you right now that he was a CrossFitter. He worked out all the time, both he and I. Our health was very important to us. We went to the doctor regularly, we got our checkups and he was very, very healthy, and he was active. It was December of 2018 when he went out to dinner to celebrate the holidays with friends and he came home and we thought he had food poisoning. Just for 24 hours, he had that gastro distress. But a couple of days later, he still looked pale to me. And as his wife, who’s constantly like, how are you feeling? You should maybe go to the doctor. I was a little bit on him. And I said, “Maybe you should just go ahead and just get this checked out.”

Christy McDonald:
He went to his primary care physician and he was anemic. They did blood work. And that’s a little bit of a signal that something’s going on, that something is maybe bleeding in your body. And his doctor said, “You know what? Maybe you have IBS, maybe you have Crohn’s, maybe colitis, maybe something’s happening inside your body.”

Chuck Gaidica:
Could have been an ulcer, could have been diverticulitis, who knows.

Christy McDonald:
Exactly. So they said, “How about you go to a gastroenterologist and get a colonoscopy. You’re young, you’re not 50 yet, but let’s go ahead and get it checked out.” We thought nothing of it. He had no other symptoms. We had the holidays. It was the first week of January when everything… You head back into the real world. And I met him at the colonoscopy and the testing ended up taking longer than it should. They told me, oh, he’ll be out in 25 minutes. No worries. And I had no worries at all. I didn’t think that there would be anything. But it took longer. And that’s when it hit me, something’s wrong. And they brought me back after it was over. And they said, “We found a mass in his colon. He is going to have to have a CT scan so we can make sure that we see where it is.”

Christy McDonald:
Fast forward five days later, Chuck and they called with the results. And not only was it colon cancer, but it had already spread throughout his body. Which was, you talk about where your life is one day and then you wake up the next day and all the plans, all the things that you had thought that your life would be, all of a sudden stops with a cancer diagnosis.

Chuck Gaidica:
And his state of health at that moment was what, how was he feeling?

Christy McDonald:
Good. If we hadn’t known, if we hadn’t taken that test, we would’ve never known, nothing. He had only had that one bout, which I think, was it food poisoning? Maybe, but it gave us the trigger to go get tested. And he was fine, but then it was the, all right, what do we do now? And you know me as a journalist, as someone who digs for information, wants answers, and will continue to call people until I get them. That was my mission to say, all right, we’re going to find the best treatment, the best way to tackle this. You live, and he was able to say, okay, I’m going to go do my job. I’m going to be a father. I’m going to be here with my family. We’re going to fight. And I said, “And I’ll be the information person.” And that’s how we looked at it.

Chuck Gaidica:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). And so as you move through that early part of this now, you come past the diagnosis. He’s working.

Christy McDonald:
Every day. He only missed a couple days of work near the end before he passed away, Chuck. He was the strongest guy in the world. I got to tell you. He was Superman to me. He went to work every day. He would go to chemo on a Wednesday afternoon and he’d be hooked up to chemo all day. And with colorectal cancer, the first line of defense, the first chemo is actually, then you take home a pack and he was on chemo for than two days continuing. And he’d be on the radio with a fanny pack. You’d never know. This guy was a man of steel to me. He didn’t miss a day. He didn’t miss a beat because for him each day that he could wake up and be on the radio. He knew he was okay.

Chuck Gaidica:
So you can always slap me. I don’t want to go too far into asking questions that aren’t appropriate. At this moment in time that you’re speaking of the prognosis was what, what did you know about longevity of life? Was the fight something that could continue, you think you could have won it at that point?

Christy McDonald:
At this point, they told us that he had stage 4 colorectal cancer.

Chuck Gaidica:
Okay.

Christy McDonald:
And the amazing part, the more and more I start to look at it, there are many thousands of people who are living with stage 4 cancer right now. Because you can treat it in a way where you minimize the disease load, that it gets so low, or you can go into remission. Will it come back? Possibly. But does it buy you time for science to continue working on something else? We did a lot of research. He did a trial down at MD Anderson. There was always something that we said, you know what, if we get to this next point, we’ll figure out the next treatment. So we said, this is a tough diagnosis, but we are going to use every resource we have to move forward and see where we would get. And he got very close to remission. We had doctors also at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York. He had surgery there, but cancer is difficult. It’s relentless. It adapts. It finds a way and it would grow. And then we’d find another treatment to kick it down. And then it would grow again.

Chuck Gaidica:
In your role as a wife, chief encourager, chief information officer, right? You’re not the-

Christy McDonald:
That sounds about right.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, you’re not the first person who’s mentioned names. We know we have names in the city, in the metro area, right? That are strong when it comes to cancer research and treatment. Right? But I have still heard my friend who’s in her mid-thirties, Sloan Kettering, that’s where we actually saw her before she had surgery. I had a friend who was at MD Anderson. Is it your strong suggestion, regardless of the kind of cancer that you jump in with your friend or your spouse, and you try to serve as not only the encourager but helping them find the best of the best right now.

Christy McDonald:
I think that’s the hard part is that you are reeling with a diagnosis and then you feel that you have to get as much information as possible. I will say we had a brilliant oncologist here in Southeast Michigan who worked out of Beaumont, Dr. Jeffrey Margolis, who was amazing. He treated Jamie like a person, not a statistic or a patient. He was with us every step of the way, and he helped us. And he would adopt a lot of the treatments that we sought for people who specialized in Jamie’s particular kind of colorectal cancer. So that I think is really the key. We also had doctors at the University of Michigan who did surgery on him there as well and did biopsies there.

Christy McDonald:
There are so many wonderful resources here in Michigan, absolutely. But there is power in making sure that you are seeking out and finding the best information possible, or a doctor who might be doing research on your particular cancer. We were lucky. And I will say, not everyone’s got the resources to be able to do that, or the insurance to be able to do that. But to be able to find some of those answers. And even now with telehealth, being able to get a second opinion with a doctor who is at another cancer center across the country, to be able to say, ah, I’m seeing 50 of those cancer cases specifically a day, and this is how I can help you. That is also a fantastic resource to be able to have.

Chuck Gaidica:
So for some of us, and I’m one of these guys that I feel like if something happens, I’ve got to get back up on the horse. It’s just kind of helps me. Right?

Christy McDonald:
Yes.

Chuck Gaidica:
And I think that’s why they came up with that phrase. You get back up on the horse after it throws you off. But personally for you and the kids with what Jamie was going through personally off-air. So he’s up, back on the horse, he’s doing his job, he’s doing a great job. How were things at home then? How was that unfolding?

Christy McDonald:
It was really hard because you know that how public Jamie was, he was this public person and he did sports talk radio, which also would be guy talk. So there would be a lot of times, I mean he talked about our family, he talked about me, he talked about fights we got into, he talked about the things, the activities that our kids would do. We decided to keep his diagnosis private and off the air because there is something to every day walking out into the world and someone coming up to you and going, ah, oh, how are you? How’s the cancer? Those are really hard questions to have to face every single day. And we would say to ourselves at home sometimes, today’s not a cancer day. You know what? You had treatment today, but now it’s done. We can talk about what’s down the line tomorrow, but today’s not a cancer day.

Christy McDonald:
So we would try to find that joy. And that’s really hard, Chuck, to be present in the day and not look down the road at that huge mountain that’s in the distance. So some days it’s easy, some days it was truly, truly difficult and putting on… I mean, I guess just getting really personal with you here, putting on the face of we are all okay. Knowing that we are in the fight of our lives was very, very hard, very hard.

Chuck Gaidica:
Plus as a parent, you’re trying to navigate how to have that mask on for the kids. Right? Because we do that in various ways when it’s not related to…

Christy McDonald:
We always want to protect our kids. Right?

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah.

Christy McDonald:
Yeah. Our children knew absolutely about Jamie’s battle, going over specific test results with them or specific details was not anything that we did on a daily basis because my children are the most important thing to me. And especially now being able to help them as they see me advocate on Jamie’s behalf and on his memory going forward because life did move every day. And there were math tests and there were baseball games that were lost and there were all the things that you had to navigate as being a parent, and even with cancer and everything that we had going on. Jamie was still so present for them at those times. And every time that they saw him get up, go to work, come home, be it their marching band competition, be it their baseball games. They knew it was okay today. And that’s what we tried to instill in our kids.

Chuck Gaidica:
So as time is moving by during this process, he was still on the air obviously, as you’ve said. When did you start to get a feel like that you weren’t winning?

Christy McDonald:
Actually, in spring of 2020, so at the height of the pandemic, which then that was very harrowing with his being immunocompromised, not knowing what was happening. The beautiful part about COVID is that Jamie came home and he did his radio show from our basement. So he was working from home every day and we spent so much time together as a family. We did everything that everybody else did during the pandemic. We did the puzzles. We watched a lot of old movies from the 80s. He’s like, “We want to show the kids Airplane.” We were able to spend that time together, but he was still going through treatment. And we came to a point where he was in line for a trial at MD Anderson, and he did that and that was in June. But when that did not work and his numbers started changing, we knew we had to change course again, but he was still doing great. 4th of July weekend, he played two hours of tennis outside.

Chuck Gaidica:
Come on.

Christy McDonald:
Oh yes. We had family over and it was only probably then about a week and a half later that things really took a turn. And I knew we were trying to go through several things. He had an infection that I knew it was changing. And I didn’t know timing-wise, but I knew it was happening and that was truly difficult for all of us.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah. He was able to stay home?

Christy McDonald:
He was able to stay home. And then he was in the hospital for a couple of days. And then he came home and he was at home. He was at home with us. He went on the air five days before he died. And that day I had to help him down into the basement where his broadcast equipment was. And he was determined to tell everyone about what he was fighting. And he was determined to tell people about screening and getting a colonoscopy and caring about your health, which he had always done, but he didn’t want anyone else to have to go through what he had gone through. And I asked him to write something down. I said, “Please just write it down. Just jot something down.” Because he was so tired and he looked at me and he is like, “I’ve got it.” And I was like, of course, he does. He’s a broadcasting professional. And he spoke from the heart. He absolutely did have it.

Chuck Gaidica:
I’ve listened to him talk about that on-air. When he got to that point, did he know what was happening? Was he aware that the end was near?

Christy McDonald:
I think Jamie, I would say was always a glass-half-full guy and he didn’t feel well. And that scared him because of this entire 19th month battle. He had felt very good. We had done a lot of things to support him after chemo. So he moved through a lot of the treatments and a lot of the procedures because he was so young and strong. And I think that that was such a key. His body was prepared for a fight. And so at this point, I think he was so tired and that scared him a little bit. But then he was with all of us and it was okay. You never prepare for anything like this. Never prepared to say goodbye to my partner, a young man and no one my age, Chuck talks about that. Talks about dying, talks about being with that person as they leave the world.

Christy McDonald:
And I really haven’t shared that much with people. It is a beautiful thing. It’s a difficult thing. And I say God bless all the hospice workers and the palliative care workers that are with us to walk that journey because it’s a very difficult one. One explained to me she was wonderful, this nurse and she said, “Death is this slow-moving train. We can’t stop what’s going to happen or the speed of it. All we can do now is make it smooth under the tracks.” And that’s how we thought of it.

Chuck Gaidica:
I was there for both my mom and dad who passed within four and a half months of each other in 2019 in hospice.

Christy McDonald:
Oh wow, Chuck. I’m sorry.

Chuck Gaidica:
Oh, thanks. And you come to realize, as sad, obviously, as this is and as much weight as it is. It’s a privilege. It’s kind of weird for me to… I’ve thought about it. So, that’s how I can even articulate it. It’s a privilege to be with someone who’s half in this realm and half in the other realm. Because you’re not there yet personally, and yet you’re with somebody who is and saying things, my mom is saying names, calling me her brother’s name. She knew who I was even in Alzheimer’s. How much of what you saw in your journey do you think was important in being half glassful, half-empty? How much positive attitude, faith, the things that you would think are the ancillaries maybe, and maybe they’re the most important thing that comes around a person who’s ill in their family, not just getting up on the horse, but the stuff that makes sense, because doggone it, I am going to get up tomorrow and I’m going to beat this thing. How critical is that attitude?

Christy McDonald:
It’s a choice and how you want to wake up every day. And how you want to go about it. And I think that is the one gift that cancer has given me because I think, I sometimes can be very cynical in the world, but Jamie showed us that you can get up and move through it. And there is medicine in the world, thank God for modern medicine, but having the strength of presence and saying, you know what? I can’t change what’s going to happen tomorrow. All I can be here is enjoy what’s in front of me and get up for it every day because I can. Because I feel well today and that’s something that I’ve carried now.

Christy McDonald:
So many people we get busy and it’s, oh, I’m so busy. This is just so… I’ve got to run here and I’ve got to run here. I’ve got to go see my daughter’s volleyball game today. And it’s not in the hometown. I’ve got to go drive somewhere at four o’clock in the afternoon and I’ve got to run here, but I get to be here. I get to be here and I get to be present, Jamie does not. And so I now go through this life in a different way than before cancer happened to us because I know what I get now. I know what the beauty of being present for my children and for this crazy life because he doesn’t have that gift anymore. But he modeled that for me as someone who faced a diagnosis every day and he was like, “Well, I’m here today. I’m going to kick it as long as I can.”

Chuck Gaidica:
Does that extend beyond your family? I know that’s the most important thing with your kids and your mom and dad and your siblings, but does that extend to other people that you want to be in the moment and present now more than ever?

Christy McDonald:
Absolutely. Because and it makes you think, what do you want to do now? How do you want to be? We’ve gone through losing Jamie. We were with him. We held him when he left us. And so it can’t not change you when you see that, again, happening in his forties. Nothing that I ever imagined that would happen to us and to my children, they will forever be changed. And we have our own difficult dealings and journeys with grief. And why did it happen? And I wish my dad were here just one more day, but we do have that gift of presence. And it does extend for me in being with other things and friends and being able to spend time with my mom and dad as a gift and my sisters and their families as well. And it does change you.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah. With you and the kids together, you’re obviously acting as a spokesperson extraordinaire for this journey you’ve been on.

Christy McDonald:
Thank you.

Chuck Gaidica:
Is there something else you’re doing with the kids without the kids to honor Jamie’s memory that you want anybody to know about?

Christy McDonald:
I think the big thing for us is information is power. So what we have been able to do is just share the message of get a colonoscopy. Remember your health, get in touch with your primary care doctor and be present. Don’t be afraid. We are thinking about in the future, what would we like to do? I know that Jamie and I talked whenever we are in waiting rooms and waiting for doctors and waiting for treatment, what we would do when we would get on the other side of this. And he always wanted to advocate for younger people with cancer. Because a lot of times we were the youngest people in the waiting rooms. We were the youngest people in the hospitals and that’s a different mindset, but his big key was awareness. So this is where we’re starting. And the old Christy, I think before losing Jamie and before cancer, would’ve said, we’re going to set up a foundation, we’re going to do this. And we’re going to run ourselves into the ground trying to figure out what to do and be in front of it all.

Christy McDonald:
But I’m also taking my time with it and being able to say what makes sense and what feels good for us right now, and being able to have people remember Jamie, remember and hear his story. And have that be their inspiration for screening and say, you know what? I was thinking about it and this is… You know what? I’m going to go. I’m going to go get checked out. I’m going to go get a colonoscopy. And I hear from people all the time that that is what they’re doing. It’s amazing. I had a guy stopped me on an airplane two weeks ago.

Chuck Gaidica:
No kidding.

Christy McDonald:
Yeah. He’s like, “Oh, Christy, I wanted to talk to you.” And I wasn’t sitting next to him, but he passed me back a Delta napkin like an hour into the flight. And it was written his whole story of, I met Jamie once and then I heard his message on the radio and I was putting off getting a colonoscopy. But then I went in. I’m so glad I did because I wouldn’t be on this airplane today if I had not. The doctors found some things. So the stories that we’re hearing are powerful. And so just being able to start with that information and awareness is the best place for us to be advocates right now.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah. Well, you are that. And I really appreciate what you’re saying. And the notion of slowing down, I fight that myself, the idea of trying to do good, but when you’re wired to be entrepreneurial, informational, you do want to do the big thing. Not because you need to have someone pat you on the back, but that’s hard to temper. And so what you’re doing is so critically important.

Christy McDonald:
Thank you. It is hard because you want to solve all the things. And that was also part of my personality in moving through this. I wanted to solve this for Jamie. And I think that was the most difficult thing is you can’t solve everything. You can’t fix everything. You can’t research your way out of everything and giving yourself a little bit of that grace of we did the best we could. We all just do the best we can each day. And the fact that some days we just show up, maybe not firing off on all cylinders. That’s okay too.

Chuck Gaidica:
We’re glad you showed up today.

Christy McDonald:
Thanks, Chuck.

Chuck Gaidica:
This has been a great episode and I hope you encourage so many people. I just had a colonoscopy.

Christy McDonald:
Yay. That’s what I want to hear.

Chuck Gaidica:
Just before Christmas-

Christy McDonald:
I know about everyone’s colon health now. I love it.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah, I know. Isn’t it funny? And as it turned out, mine was just before Christmas. So I’m talking to the lady in booking the appointment. I said, “Merry Christmas to me.” And she said, “You’re right.”

Christy McDonald:
Absolutely.

Chuck Gaidica:
That was her response. You’re right.

Christy McDonald:
Yep.

Chuck Gaidica:
So I encourage everybody to do it as well. Christy McDonald, it’s good to see you. In Jamie’s memory, we wish you the very best and your family, your kids, and extended family and loved having you here today.

Christy McDonald:
Thanks for the conversation, Chuck. And thank you for letting me be, I guess, really just transparent and authentic about it because it’s a love story, really for me. And to be able to do this in Jamie’s memory, who was just the Superman of my heart. So thank you very much.

Chuck Gaidica:
Oh, awesome. Take good care of yourself.

Christy McDonald:
Thanks.

Chuck Gaidica:
We’re glad you’ve been here as well. Thanks for listening to A Healthier Michigan Podcast. It’s brought to you by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. If you like this show, you want to know more. You can check us out online at ahealthiermichigan.org/podcast, or you can leave us a review or rating on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher. You can get new episodes. We’re up to 102, so that means you’ve got a lot of other episodes on a myriad of topics you can take with you on your smartphone or tablet. Be sure to subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. I’m Chuck Gaidica, be well.