In July 2007, I was diagnosed with colon cancer. I was 71 years old and enjoying very good health. I exercised regularly and was careful about what I ate. I thrived on lots of fruits and vegetables, and ate only lean chicken and fish. My diagnosis was a great shock to me, and a fearful surprise for my family and friends.
Six months before my diagnosis, I was having unusual stomach cramps. Given my history of good health, I did not take it seriously, thinking that the cramps were just because of gas in my stomach. The symptoms persisted and eventually became so unbearable that I sought medical attention. My doctor sent me for a CT scan after his own thorough examination.
The scan showed an inflamed colon. The gastroenterologist was puzzled—there was no blood in my stool, and I didn’t have diarrhea. He recommended immediate colonoscopy. This was my first time having a colonoscopy, and I was 71 years old! The colonoscopy revealed a cancerous mass on the right side of my colon and precancerous polyps on the left side. Within 10 days of the diagnosis, I had surgery. The final pathology indicated stage II cancer. The surgeon told me this was good news, because the colonoscopy results made her expect a worse outcome.
I now appreciate the need for regular checkups. I had gotten my regular mammograms and Pap smears, but when it was recommended, I did not get a colonoscopy because of fear and because I lived a healthy lifestyle. I have been given a new lease on life, and I can pass on to others the important lesson of the need for regular checkups.—a.j.
My role as a family physician is to recommend and encourage patients to be current with age-appropriate screenings. Although A.J. had a scheduled colonoscopy, she did not follow through with it. Patients may not get screened for many reasons, including unfamiliarity with screening guidelines and options, and high cost if they are uninsured.
Five regimens are currently recommended for colon cancer screening, providing physicians and patients with a variety of screening options, including a high-sensitivity fecal occult blood test (FOBT) every year; flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years; colonoscopy every 10 years; air-contrast barium enema every five years; and a combination of FOBT with flexible sigmoidoscopy, each at their usual intervals.1
A.J.’s experience supports the initiative for patients to be current with their age-appropriate colon cancer screening, which aids in identifying a preventable disease.