March 27, 2024

Patient Battled Colon Cancer with Strength, Support, and Advocacy

Gary Sawyer, a self-employed contractor from Holton, Kansas, never imagined he would face another cancer diagnosis after overcoming prostate cancer in 2010. "I had a lot of probes and scans back then, and in my mind, I figured if something were wrong, it would have shown up," Gary recalls. However, last year, he found himself in a new battle, this time against colon cancer, a journey that would showcase his resilience and the collaboration between The University of Kansas Cancer Center and its supporting oncology program at St. Francis Campus in Topeka.

Colon Cancer Diagnosis and Navigating Treatment Options

Despite experiencing no symptoms or warning signs of colon issues, Gary started feeling sluggish, and his blood counts were low. After his provider in Holton recommended a colonoscopy, a mass was discovered. "We took the bull by the horns and ran," Gary says, describing the swift actions taken after his diagnosis.

Having prior experience with cancer through their daughter's breast and liver cancer journey, Gary and Janine understood the importance of quality care. After thorough research and recommendations, they contacted a nurse navigator at The University of Kansas Cancer Center to get an appointment with Dr. Weijing Sun, an oncologist specializing in gastrointestinal cancers. During their first appointment to discuss Gary's treatment plan, Dr. Sun suggested starting chemotherapy soon and recommended them to Dr. Manidhar Lekkala, an oncologist and hematologist at St. Francis Campus in Topeka, to get treatment started sooner and closer to home.

Dr. Sun's confidence in Dr. Lekkala reassured Gary and Janine. Gary remarked, "We were told by Dr. Sun that Dr. Lekkala is an excellent oncologist, and he highly recommends him because he hired him!"

Dr. Lekkala's practice encompasses all cancer types and blood disorders, and he collaborates closely with colleagues at the University of Kansas Cancer Center to ensure comprehensive care for his patients.


Optimism and Determination Through Treatment

Gary embarked on his treatment journey with optimism and determination. "We came to the cancer center at St. Francis on a Monday to get my port and started chemo on Wednesday. For everything we had to do, the process went quickly," Gary recalls.

Throughout his treatment, Gary experienced the incredible support of the staff at St. Francis. "Dr. Lekkala and his nurses at the cancer center were wonderful," Gary mentions, smiling. "You would be surprised at how many staff members we would meet at St. Francis, and somehow, we would know their families," added Janine. Despite a few challenges with chemotherapy, Gary remained resilient. "I hated the feeling of being tethered to a pump," he admits, describing the ups and downs of his treatment days. "We had such a good response from everybody; you couldn't have scripted it any better from start to finish." Did I have a few glitches in my journey? Yes, but just like anyone does. I don't recommend chemo to anybody, but if you have to do it, it's hard to beat any place like St. Francis."


Creating Moments of Joy and Connection

Gary created moments of joy and camaraderie during his visits to the cancer center. His tradition of wearing brightly colored Hawaiian shirts brought smiles to the staff, and he discovered a shared connection with his brother, who had also battled colon cancer. Gary didn't realize until he mentioned wearing the Hawaiian shirts that his brother did the same thing during his treatments in Colorado a few years earlier. Gary also liked surprising staff with fun gifts. "After my first treatment, we had specially made drink tumblers made with the saying "Oncology Nurse – Because Badass Life Saver Isn't a Title," described Gary. He also brought 100 specialty pens shaped like syringes and left them on their table. Add in the endless KU vs KSU-friendly debates with staff and volunteers. "If possible, we made it a good time during what could have been a bad time," said Gary. However, everything fell into place, and they had a party on his last day of treatment. Gary treated the staff with individual cakes from Nothing Bundt Cakes to celebrate.


Reflecting on Attitude, Support and Inspiring Others to Screen

As Gary reflects on his journey, he acknowledges the strength of attitude and the importance of support. "Attitude is 90% of it," he remarks, highlighting the power of positivity in facing challenges. His wife, Janine, stood by his side as a pillar of strength throughout the journey. "We did it together; she is my rock," Gary says, expressing gratitude for her unwavering support.  I also received exception care, Gary added, “We had a few different nurses during my treatment, but it was like they cloned each other. They were all so friendly and caring. It was a joint effort while I was in treatment; they were all very knowledgeable and caring – just all good people. Even the volunteers, everyone was so upbeat and positive. I was fortunate enough that my cancer treatments didn't knock me down – I didn't let it."

Gary's journey has also ripple effect, inspiring their son and several of Gary's co-workers to prioritize their health and get screened. "Since my journey, our son has had a colonoscopy, and several of my sub-contractors in my business have had a colonoscopy because of me," Gary shares. "If I had known how easy it would be to have one done, I would have had it a long time ago. But I had just been poked and prodded after my prostate cancer treatments and didn't want to go through it again. The procedure was just like my doctor told me, 'It will be the best nap you'll ever take!'"


Celebrating Success: Being Cancer Free

Today, Gary celebrates being cancer-free, thanks to successful surgery and effective treatments. His experience with The University of Kansas Cancer Center in partnership with the oncology program at St. Francis Campus exhibits the collaborative efforts of medical professionals in the region to provide the best care. Gary notes, "Every step of the way, I encountered a supportive atmosphere that fostered healing and hope. The genuine compassion I experienced stands out the most."


The University of Kansas Cancer Center, in partnership with The University of Kansas Health System St. Francis Campus, expands access to the most advanced cancer care for patients in Topeka and northeast Kansas. The St. Francis Campus Cancer Center offers comprehensive care, including the latest treatment modalities such as chemotherapy/immunotherapy, palliative care, and psychotherapy for patients and their families, along with the addition of the region's only radiation oncology brachytherapy/HDR treatment. Our team strives to care for you and your loved one as they would expect for their own family with competent and compassionate care. To learn more about our providers and services, visit or call 785-295-7800.


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