John Calvert celebrated a recent Friday with three rings of a bell.
It’s a tradition among those with a cancer diagnosis that signals the end of their treatment. Surrounded by doctors and staff members from Desert Regional Medical Center’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, Calvert struck the bell once for himself, a second time for all those who supported him, and a third time for everyone at the Palm Springs hospital. The only sound louder than the bell chiming was the roar of applause that followed from the small crowd.
Calvert had few, but powerful, words to describe the moment: “I feel good.”
That day wasn’t always a guarantee. Calvert, 67, from Flamingo Heights near Yucca Valley, was diagnosed with stage 4 colorectal cancer in January 2021. Like many others across the country, he had trouble accessing medical care during the COVID-19 pandemic, which ultimately led to his late-stage cancer diagnosis that also spread to his liver.
After surgery and several rounds of chemotherapy, infusion and radiation therapies, Calvert is ready to move on to the next chapter of his life. Because March is observed as Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, Calvert’s hope is that his story encourages others to get screened on time.
Originally from England, Calvert moved to the Yucca Valley area in 1995 after a few years in Los Angeles. His work in the electrical field brought him to the United States in 1988, but he has “kind of retired” in recent years.
Around June 2020, at the height of the initial phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, Calvert felt off and thought he had food poisoning. Weeks later, though, he did not feel like he was getting better. He felt lethargic, had a reduced appetite and a bloated, hard stomach.
“I just did not feel 100% anymore, and I continued to go downhill and lose weight,” he said.
At the time, he had an HMO health insurance plan. He saw a doctor in the fall who diagnosed him with hemorrhoids. Calvert tried to schedule a colonoscopy, but an appointment wasn’t available until the December holidays. By that point, he felt weak, debilitated and “couldn’t even speak properly.” He said he only had the energy to put wood in a woodstove and feed his cat.
He decided to take matters into his own hands and switch to Medicare plus a Medicare Supplement plan. When the plan kicked in in January 2021, Calvert, feeling like he was “really going downhill,” asked a friend of his to drive him to the emergency room at Desert Regional to find some answers.
Hours later, he learned he had colorectal cancer.
Colon and rectum cancer is the fourth most common type, after breast, lung and prostate cancers. In 2021, colorectal cancer was the second most common cause of cancer death with nearly 53,000 deaths, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Approximately 150,000 new cases of colorectal cancer are diagnosed every year in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society.
If the cancer is localized, meaning there is no sign that it has spread outside of the colon or rectum, the five-year survival rate is around 90%, explained Dr. Amir Lavaf, radiation oncologist at Desert Regional. But when it spreads to distant parts of the body, such as the liver or distant lymph nodes, the five-year survival rate drops to around 15%.
It was shocking news to hear, said Calvert, whose family did not have much of a history of cancer. His father died of lung cancer in 1967, but he said it was due to working on aircraft during World War II and being exposed to asbestos and other chemicals and materials. Other family members lived well into their 80s or 90s.
He also said he was very healthy and took care of his diet, didn’t eat a lot of junk food or drink a lot of alcohol.
“If I had to bet money, I would have bet that I was not a candidate for getting cancer,” he said. “I thought I was invincible.”
Lavaf said poor diet, obesity and genetic syndromes are risk factors that contribute to colorectal cancer. Common symptoms include change in bowel habits and stool size, bleeding, fatigue due to anemia and abdominal discomfort.
Upon processing the news, Calvert decided the best way forward was to keep his head up and eyes on the prize.
“When they told me, ‘You have cancer,’ I thought, OK, well, I’ve got cancer, it’s time to buckle down and fight this thing,” Calvert said. “I never for one minute came home and thought this is the end, this is how it’s going to be. I just completely decided I was going to beat this thing.”
Calvert also praised friends who supported him and the medical care he received for his recovery.
The last few months have shown Lavaf one of the many devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When the hospital became overwhelmed, they stopped operating, screening, stopped doing all of this stuff. We saw a disproportionate amount of advanced-stage disease that we used to see at early stage,” Lavaf said. “It was a whole group of people that when they didn’t get screened, the cancers just grew for about a year or two.”
Though he did not have exact numbers available, Lavaf said he has seen “a ton” of stage 4 patients — people he should have seen at stage 1 or 2 — in the last six to nine months.
If colorectal cancer is caught early, surgery is often all that’s needed for recovery, Lavaf explained. But with late-stage colorectal cancer, like other types of cancers, the treatment options are often more intense and aggressive.
Calvert first underwent surgery before heading into “recovery mode,” he said.
Every other week he would head to Desert Regional for chemotherapy and then he would go home with a pump attached to him for additional infusion treatment that would last 48 hours. He said he was “very lucky” with the chemotherapy treatments and didn’t experience common symptoms such as nausea, hair loss or fatigue.
Radiation treatments, which he completed over the course of five weeks, affected him more. The treatment was targeting his liver and rectum. Lavaf described the treatment like “giving you a sunburn inside your stomach,” Calvert recalled, and it would make him feel fatigued for a few days.
On his most recent trip to Desert Regional, Calvert was scheduled to get his infusion pump removed, which signaled the end of his chemotherapy treatment. The previous week he had his final radiation treatment.
Medical oncologist Dr. Soe Maunglay, with a bright smile that was noticeable even under his face mask, said the “heavy chemo days are over.”
“Very few stage 4 cancer patients can have this moment, so let’s celebrate today,” Maunglay said.
Calvert responded: “You did say a year ago, when I first saw you, we’d be talking about my treatment in a year’s time, and it’s come to pass.”
The medical oncologist praised Calvert, saying he was “the best patient I could find” because of how dedicated he was to his fight. He also applauded his positive attitude throughout the process, which made him the “easiest patient ever.”
There’s still some additional work that will need to be done to make sure Calvert is strong, healthy and completely cancer-free. He will take a month off to recover before he is reassessed for any additional “maintenance therapies” he might need, such as medication, and he’ll have another PET scan 12 weeks following his last radiation session, explained Maunglay.
“Take a holiday from us, don’t think about us and go live your life,” Maunglay advised.
Calvert has quite the to-do list to get to now, which includes hopefully getting a private pilot’s license. He also wants to spruce up his home and help a friend out with electrical work.
When he looks back on his journey, one takeaway stands out the most: If he had gotten screened sooner, his cancer would have been caught earlier, and possibly at an earlier stage. Calvert said he’s inspired one of his friends to get screened, and he hopes others will do the same.
“Even if just one person gets inspired that’s a good thing,” Calvert said. “That’s one person who will hopefully go through it, find out that they don’t have it or do have it and get treated early for it.”
If someone does learn that they have colorectal cancer, he wants them to know that they shouldn’t be afraid of the treatments.
The American Cancer Society recommends that people at average risk of colorectal cancer start regular screening at age 45, which was lowered from 50. About 11% of all colorectal diagnoses are in people under age 50. Screening can be done via a stool-based test or a visual exam, such as a colonoscopy.
People are considered to be at average risk if they do not have:
Lavaf added that the Desert Cancer Foundation is available to help people pay for cancer care if they can’t afford it.
Ema Sasic covers health in the Coachella Valley. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ema_sasic.
John Calvert celebrated a recent Friday with three rings of a bell.