Father with colorectal cancer gives credit to daughter for saving his life

After serving for 20 years in the United States Navy as a submarine sailor, John Lacks retired and transitioned to life with his family, including a son serving in the Navy as a submarine sailor and two daughters, in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Born and raised in Detroit, John always had a desire to return to his roots.

In the winter of 2017, he began experiencing an abnormality in his stool. At the recommendation of his trusted primary care doctor, John went in for a colonoscopy. Although he had undergone a colonoscopy just two years prior with normal results, his 2017 exam would yield a different conclusion. His colonoscopy revealed that there were cancerous cells in his colon.

This diagnosis in February 2018 re-introduced "cancer" into the Lacks family vocabulary. A health-conscious military man went from feeling great with only a minor symptom to being diagnosed with advanced colon cancer.

Unfortunately, cancer was not foreign to the Lacks family. Just three years before his diagnosis, John’s wife Dawn was diagnosed with endometrial cancer. John couldn’t help but ask himself, "Weren’t we just here battling Dawn’s cancer?"

With a cancer survivor as his caregiver and two college-aged daughters, John was determined to fight the battle against cancer. “Life and death was the norm as a submarine sailor, but I faced it again as father and husband in the fight against cancer,” he said.

The first step in his fight was to find a reputable doctor in the colorectal oncology field. Alise Patton, his youngest daughter, stepped up to help. At that time, she worked for the Michigan Society of Hematology and Oncology (MSHO), which promotes educational events for doctors throughout Michigan.

When Alise learned of her father’s diagnosis, she took action. "I knew I needed to find (my dad) the best doctor and show him what I could do for him. That was my main goal when he was originally diagnosed," she said.

Alise collaborated with her director to find her father the very best oncologist in the state. Within a week, Alise found a renowned colorectal oncologist at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute and had an appointment on the books. "I wanted him to be treated by the best of the best, and Dr. Philip was the physician we wanted," Alise said.

Recognized as one of HOUR Detroit’s 2020 Top Doctors, Philip A. Philip, M.D., Ph.D., F.R.C.P, leads the Gastrointestinal and Neuroendocrine Tumors Multidisciplinary Team at Karmanos Cancer Institute. His approach centers on a personalized patient experience. “In many ways, I try to be more like a trusted friend of the patient and an advocate of the patient, rather than just being a doctor who is in and out giving a recommendation,” he said.

Although a colonoscopy prescribed by his family physician may have saved his life, John gives all the credit to his daughter. "I heard about Karmanos Cancer Institute through my daughter. Alise told me that I was going to Karmanos to be treated by Dr. Philip. Now I tell everyone, ‘Go to Karmanos. Go to someone who puts work into a personalized approach,'" he said.

After six rounds of intense chemotherapy, repeated scans and regular bloodwork at the Lawrence and Idell Weisberg Cancer Treatment Center in Farmington Hills, John Lacks received great news in February 2019, just one year after his initial diagnosis. His scans were negative and completely clear of cancer. His grit had paid off. “Cancer is a terrifying journey for a family, but you have to keep your spirits up and fight through it,” he said.

John has now been cancer-free for two years. His journey affected the entire family, but it may have influenced Alise’s path the most. She now works in the Marketing and Communications Department at Karmanos. “It gives me pride and joy to work for an organization that provided that wonderful experience and care for my dad and other patients,” she said.

As a marketing team member, Alise spends her time advertising and promoting the place that holds a very special place in her heart. Cancer was part of her family’s story – not once, but twice. "It’s so rewarding to know that people love their doctors, who are providing the best experiences while dealing with such tough diseases."

As is true for all cancers, colon cancer is the most curable in its early stages. Colorectal cancer usually begins as a non-cancerous polyp or growth, which can often be found and removed before it turns into cancer. Early colorectal cancer has no symptoms, so regular screening is vital to early detection.


During a colonoscopy, a small flexible tube with a camera at the tip is inserted into the anus. It passes through the rectum and colon to detect abnormalities such as polyps. During this procedure, your physician may biopsy or remove suspicious-looking areas. Patients are sedated for this procedure.

Men and women at average risk should schedule their first colonoscopy at age 45 and continue every five to 10 years if the results are normal. Those with increased risk should discuss their screening needs with their health care provider and may need to begin screening early and complete it more frequently. To learn more, visit www.karmanos.org/karmanos/colon-cancer-screening.

If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with cancer of the gastrointestinal tract, it is important to be evaluated by cancer experts before beginning treatment. Please call 1-800-KARMANOS (1-800-527-6266) to speak with a trusted oncology patient navigator who can help you determine which tests are right for you.