Husband’s Legacy Inspired Her Fight to Prevent Colorectal Cancer
One in an ongoing series.
If it wasn’t exactly love at first sight for Angie Nicholas and John MacLeod, it was “pretty close to it,” said Dr. Nicholas, a family physician and Chief Medical Officer at Einstein Medical Center Montgomery.
The couple were married on New Year’s Eve of 2010 and spent years traveling and sharing joyful companionship. MacLeod was a “born salesman” and a charismatic character who had a zest for life. He was the kind of guy who bought drinks for everybody at the golf club bar and “never met an upgrade he didn’t like.”
But their love story ended too soon. MacLeod died of colon cancer in April 2019. And Dr. Nicholas is now channeling her grief into saving others from the same fate.
Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death among men and women combined in the United States. And 60% of the deaths can be prevented with screening.
Seeking Earlier Screening
Dr. Nicholas’s goal, as the incoming board chair of Fight Colorectal Cancer, a national advocacy group, is to lower the recommended age of screening from 50 to 45, a recommendation already endorsed by the American Cancer Society. The intent is to have insurance companies pay for the earlier screening.
The change probably wouldn’t have saved her husband, who already had Stage IV cancer by age 45 and was too young to have been screened. But given the fact that colorectal cancer is striking younger people more and more often, it very well might save someone else. And that has been Dr. Nicholas’s mission since she was a little girl.
Her mother was an operating room nurse for 50 years, and “everyone said you’re going to be one, too,” she said. But inspired by episodes of the TV series about family doctor Marcus Welby, MD, which she watched with her grandmother, she decided to become a doctor.
“From the time anybody can remember, I always wanted to be a doctor,” she said.
Cultivating Family Relationships
Family medicine appealed to her because “I develop long-term relationships with families,” she said. “I have families where I take care of the grandmother and grandfather, the husband and wife and kids. They become friends and family.”
By the time John MacLeod was diagnosed in the fall of 2013, the cancer had already spread to his liver and lungs. For five years, he had one treatment after another: chemotherapy, radiation, ablation, surgery after surgery. But he pressed on, playing golf nearly every day.
At Dr. Nicholas’s urging, he became active in Fight Colorectal Cancer, and reveled in providing hope to others. “That became our passion. It wasn’t just fighting colon cancer, but it was our entire community fighting colon cancer,” she said.
MacLeod was enrolled in six clinical trials after treatment failed to stop his cancer progression. In November of 2018, he became critically ill. Over the next six months, “he spent somewhere between 40 and 50 days in intensive care. He was in the hospital six or seven times,” Dr. Nicholas said.
She continued working throughout the ordeal, to provide stability and purpose in her life, as she took on the exhausting experience of being a caregiver – staying up most of the night to monitor her husband and give him medications.
“I was working during the day and when I went home, from 6 p.m. until I left at 7 in the morning, I was awake most of the night. It was a very, very hard time, but he was my husband and I loved him and I would do it again.
“It made me realize that I could barely navigate this, and I’m a physician. If I could barely do it, what about others? There has to be a way to prevent this from happening to others.”
Continuing the Mission
For many months after MacLeod’s death, Dr. Nicholas said she “was very sad and wondered how I was going to live my life.” Now, she said, she has been revived by her devotion to her patients and to colon cancer advocacy. “I’ve been given an opportunity to continue John’s mission; it’s now my mission and I’m continuing to live my life in a way that honors his memory.”
And it has deepened her empathy for her patients.
“I know what it’s like to sit in an ICU waiting room and wonder if your husband is going to be alive or not,” she said. “I know what it’s like to sit in a room and wait to find out if the cancer has spread. I hope I’m a better physician for what I went through with John.”
But be warned: if you’ve been avoiding a colonoscopy because you think the preparation is nasty and the protocol is inconvenient, don’t expect sympathy from Dr. Nicholas. “When my patients complain about the prep, I tell them it’s better than getting chemo,” she said.
And it’s certainly better than a foreshortened end to a story that was pretty close to love at first sight.