Cristin Polizzi overcame a rare form of cancer and may have never known of its recurrence if it wasn’t for weight loss surgery. Now she enjoys a new lease on life with her daughter.
Cristin Polizzi is a wellness program coordinator in the bariatric surgery department at Jefferson Health – New Jersey. She helps countless patients navigate their pre- and post-surgical journey and find lifestyle habits that work for them to improve unique comorbidities and lead an overall healthier life.
Her personal experience inspires the way she relates to the patients she helps. Cristin is no stranger to health complications. Back in 2017, she overcame a bout of a rare form of cancer: leiomyosarcoma, which affects smooth muscle tissue in the abdominal organs. Her treatment course and recovery would ultimately lead her to undergo bariatric surgery and discover an unsuspected recurrence of the cancer.
It all started about a year ago, in December 2019, Cristin says. In remission, despite feeling generally healthy, she was still struggling with her weight, sleep apnea and asthma.
Having a hysterectomy (due to her cancer) in her early 30s had subjected Cristin to significant weight gain, and no matter what she did, she couldn’t seem to lose the extra weight. She turned to her colleagues to see whether or not she’d be considered for bariatric surgery.
Cristin’s weight of 200 pounds and subsequent BMI (Body Mass Index) of 35 wouldn’t necessarily ensure candidacy for everyone, however, her surgeon Dr. Marc Neff knew surgery would be beneficial due to her complex medical history with weight-related conditions.
After counseling so many bariatric patients through preparing for surgery, Cristin was determined and prepared for her own procedure.
“I knew what to expect, from a provider standpoint,” Cristin says. “I knew how long everything would take, and what I would have to do afterward. What I didn’t know, however, was that my cancer had come back.”
In September, a small nodule and lesion were found near Cristin’s chest, which warranted additional testing. It wasn’t until after her gastric sleeve surgery, however, that biopsies showed metastatic leiomyosarcoma. Around a month later, she underwent surgery again to have her nodule and lesion removed.
While the impact of Cristin’s weight loss on her cancer can’t be known entirely, explains Dr. Neff, studies have shown that cancer treatment outcomes may be improved in some cases for those who maintain a healthy weight, diet, and lifestyle. In terms of chemotherapy, specifically, it is also known that certain medications are more effective in those with a healthy weight.
Cristin’s “double-whammy” recovery hasn’t been as difficult as one might expect, she says. “I definitely have good days and bad days, but my weight loss has made chemotherapy a lot easier.”
This is because much of Cristin’s post-bariatric routine and cancer routine overlap. Nausea is a common side effect of chemotherapy, and patients are often advised to consume smaller meals. Cristin is doing this for her bariatric progress, as well as her cancer. She reminds herself to hydrate and eat by setting alarms–a trick she learned at her job.
“When you have cancer, sometimes you’re so drained and uncomfortable that you don’t feel like nourishing yourself, but I knew that I had to,” Cristin explains. “I know how important it is to get plenty of vitamins and minerals for proper healing.”
Physical activity is also key to successful weight loss after bariatric surgery and relief of bone pain caused by chemotherapy. Cristin is unable to do high-intensity workouts but instead is relying on two of her favorite pastimes: yoga and walking. Recently, she and her daughter, Ava, unintentionally hiked for nearly five miles. Cristin didn’t reach for her inhaler one time, which she shares has been her greatest “non-scale” victory so far.
Cristin has only been back to work on a part-time basis, but she’s already noticed how her experience has changed her daily dialogue.
“I always had empathy, but now I have something even more important–a complete understanding of what my patients go through,” Cristin says. “We’re able to be really open and understand each other now.”
Now, at around 145 pounds and less than three months left of chemotherapy, Cristin feels she’s nearing the light at the end of the tunnel. She keeps her mindset positive with daily meditation and positive affirmations.
“I remind myself that each day is a fresh start and that you can only do today’s best, not yesterday’s,” says Cristin. “I also know that I must not compare myself to others, as no two patients look the same or feel the same. Every patient, in every aspect of healthcare, has a unique story.”