After 3 surgeries, her second child, and ongoing chemotherapy, Annie is still battling cancer 3 years later.
Annie Clausen, age 34, was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer while 14 weeks pregnant, on November 18, 2019.
Initially, the cancer was discovered in her left ovary on November 9, 2019, by her OBGYN, Dr. Emily Sikking, which was surgically removed. When her removed ovary didn’t have the biomarkers for ovarian cancer Annie underwent more tests to find out where the cancer metastasized from–her pathology report stated it originated in the gut somewhere.
Completely changed by the knowledge she had cancer during her pregnancy and not exactly which one, Annie maintained a positive outlook even though she was in her second trimester. “In ten days, everything happened so quickly–I had no time to think about anything,” she regals in her video testimonial.
Nine days after her ovarian surgery, a colonoscopy was scheduled at Saint John’s Health Center, in Santa Monica, California, which found a large mass in her colon. She was rushed into the Emergency Department at Saint John’s Health Center where she met Dr. Anton Bilchik, Chief of General Surgery, Director of Gastrointestinal and Hepatobiliary, and Research Programs at both Saint John’s Health Center and Cancer Institute. The very next day she underwent a laparoscopic-assisted sigmoid colon resection, where Dr. Bilchik removed 10 inches of her colon, an omentectomy, and an insertion of a chemo port for an obstructing colon cancer. By Dr. Bilchik resecting the colon, Annie didn’t need to have a coloscopy bag, which saved her another surgery.
Annie was Dr. Bilchik’ s last scheduled surgery on November 18, 2019. Fully aware there were two lives in the balance, Dr. Bilchik tells Annie, “I will be laser focused,” which Annie mentions was when she felt a wave of reassurance, and confidence. The surgery ended sometime near midnight.
“He knew he had two lives to take care of. He kept telling me it was going to be fine.”
During Annie’s five-day stay at Saint John’s Health Center, Dr. Bilchik visited every day to personally see how she and her baby were doing. “I don’t remember waking up,” she says in her testimonial.
Life can change at any moment
When Annie found out she had stage 4 colon cancer, her distress for her unborn child was acute, “Am I going to be able to have my child with all the treatment I needed?” Treatment for stage 4 cancer is hard enough on a healthy person’s body, and because she had stage 4 cancer, was 14 weeks pregnant, and needed chemotherapy, The Gastrointestinal (GI) Tumor Board at Saint John’s Health Center convened to discuss her treatment plan and surgery. Their discussion revolved around whether Annie’s child would be safe going through Annie’s many treatments.
Annie called it, “the meeting of the minds.” What Annie is referring to is a multidisciplinary approach to patient care and treatment which allows for best practices and individualized treatment plans. After the GI multidisciplinary tumor board met, and one day before surgery, Annie was informed while in her hospital bed she and her child would be okay. Annie’s relief was observed as she obtained what she had been hoping for—she was going to keep her child, but still had to battle cancer.
The Gastrointestinal Tumor Board at Saint John’s is comprised of, Dr. Anton Bilchik, Dr. Trevan Fischer, Dr. Robert Wollman, Dr. Timothy Kristedja, Dr. Tracey Childs, Dr. Ora Gordon, as well as several pathologists and fellows who rotate in.
19 weeks, and 9 rounds of chemotherapy later, Annie was induced at 35 weeks pregnant. Since the timing of her birth had to happen between her chemotherapy treatments, she couldn’t wait for a natural birth.
Annie decided to have her child at Saint John’s Health Center. Her OBGYN was Dr. Emily Sikking. One hour before birth, she had a blood transfusion, and was overjoyed when her doctors told her she did not have to have a C-section, saying, “any other place would have made we had a C-section.” This would have created more complications for Annie in her state.
Annie’s daughter was born June 4, 2020.
“She is our little miracle baby.”
Annie, already undergone two surgeries, recent childbirth, and a total of 12 chemotherapy treatments, was informed on June 10, 2020, the cancer recurred somewhere else in her body, the liver.
For her third surgery, Annie felt it was right to have it at Saint John’s with Dr. Anton Bilchik. “I knew I wanted to go back to Dr. Bilchik,” for metastatic liver cancer, where 30 percent of the right liver was removed, her gallbladder, her right ovary, and incisional hernia. The surgery lasted many hours.
In August of 2021, one year after her third and last surgery, the cancer came back. This time in her pelvic area. She received radiation and was put on a trial pill for targeted cell therapy.
Since August of 2021, Annie has gone to chemotherapy every other week. She has received 30 rounds of chemotherapy infusion throughout her battle with cancer. “I have my good week, then I have my crappy week, this is my good week,” she says. When Annie was first diagnosed, she was a mother of a toddler. She now is the mother of two healthy children. “No matter how sick I felt, every morning I got out of bed because I wanted their days to be normal.” Annie’s miracle baby is now 2 years old.
“No matter how sick I felt, every morning I got out of bed because I wanted their days to be normal.”
Why did someone so young and healthy get colon cancer?
Annie does not know why or how she has cancer, but is determined to unearth the answer and spread awareness. She was not obese, ate healthily, and had access to health care. Though she had some family history of cancer, there were no genetic markers or evidence that showed she should be on the lookout for cancer.
Colon cancer is found either by a colonoscopy, or DNA testing of stools, which is 92 percent accurate. The colon cancer recommended screening age was recently lowered to 45 from 50, but this would not have helped Annie, or her loved ones at the time of her diagnosis, age 34. Be aware that cancer is not an older person’s disease anymore—more and more youths are being diagnosed with not just colon cancer, but other cancers as well, as conveyed by Dr. Bilchik.
One wonders if Annie wasn’t pregnant how long it would have taken her to discover she had stage 4 colon cancer, which at the time of discovery, had spread to other parts of her body. The miracle in Annie’s, “Miracle Baby,” was that her pregnancy spared her life and not just her daughter’s. “It took a village to get me through this. I only listened to my doctors and to people in my corner.”
“The biggest thing [for me] is being a wife and a mother; I have so much to live for.”
About the Media
Saint John’s Cancer Institute Marketing Department