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Ellen Britton – My Happy Cancer Story

by Alicia King

Photo by Cancer Type

Ellen Britton: “I feel like a total phony even talking to Coping with Cancer. What am I coping with? I got lucky and I know it.”

Yes, you read that right. That’s what renowned musician Ellen Britton calls her brush with colon cancer – her happy cancer story.

When Ellen’s primary care physi­cian insisted she have a colonoscopy recently, Ellen was hesitant. As one of Nashville’s most sought-after guitar instructors, her schedule was already more than full. In addition to lessons, she was also recording, songwriting, and performing with her group, Queen of Hearts. Her doctor was adamant, however. Citing her father’s colon can­cer diagnosis at age 78 as a risk factor, she convinced Ellen it was not a good idea to wait. The colonoscopy was scheduled.

Vanderbilt surgeon Dr. Roberta Muldoon was chosen to perform the colonoscopy. Afterward, Dr. Muldoon informed Ellen she had found what appeared to be a benign polyp, and rec­ommended it be removed. Because of the location of the polyp, she explained it would require removing a small part of her colon, and resectioning. If they didn’t, there was a remote chance the pathology could come back a week later as malignant, and they’d have to go back for a second surgery.

Author of Article photo

Alicia King

Ellen explains her initial resistance, “I had 13 million questions and a deep skepticism, but Dr. Muldoon never wavered. She acknowledged this would be major surgery, but the risk, however small, made it necessary. Doing it this way covered me in the unlikely event it came back positive. She patiently answered everything my husband and I asked. She respected my intelligence and never rushed us. She was a tremen­dous communicator and didn’t budge.” These discussions included expected recovery time, as well. “Dr. Muldoon told me I could expect to be down for four to six weeks. I told her that wasn’t an option. I sit in a chair and teach guitar; I’m not a roofer,” says Ellen. Having all their questions answered, Ellen and her husband, Bobby King, also a musician, decided to move ahead with the surgery.

The procedure went smoothly, and Ellen was discharged as expected. A week later, the phone call came. The lab results had come back positive. The polyp that had been presumed be­nign was actually malignant, and the surgeon who insisted on treating it as such was declared by her patient as a hero. Ellen remembers telling Dr. Mul­doon, “You know this totally makes you look like a genius.”

“By the time I found out I had cancer, it was already out of my body,” says Ellen. “If it’s going to happen, this is the way to do it. I feel like the luckiest girl in the whole USA, and I’ll tell you why. I had a doctor who insisted I have the colonoscopy and a surgeon who insisted on treating what she found as being cancerous, even without the pathology. I took the time to recover, and my husband took great care of me. My friends were supportive, brought food, and not one of them was squea­mish about discussing it. What more do you want?”

With all pathology from her nodes and appendix coming back negative, Ellen was told she wouldn’t require any follow-up care beyond regular check-ups. Chemotherapy and radia­tion were unnecessary.

Ellen told Dr. Muldoon, “I cannot thank you enough. I feel like I have gotten fantastic care.”

“Just doing my job,” Dr. Muldoon replied. “There’s something you can do, though. Spread the word. Tell everyone you know to get a colonoscopy.”

Ellen took this to heart, and now she often makes an unusual plea to her audiences at the end of her show: “Hey, everybody over fifty! Go get a colonoscopy!” Her husband, Bobby, had one. A good friend in Atlanta was long overdue for hers, but made the appointment the day Ellen opened up about her diagnosis.

Both were negative. What else would you expect from a happy cancer story?

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Alicia King is the author of Healing: The Essential Guide to Helping Others Over­come Grief and Loss, her second book on grief support. She also had a colonoscopy after interviewing Ellen Britton. All clear.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2016.