By Shannon Carroll
“Does anybody have Dave’s mailing address?” read the text to a group of former coworkers. Though we’ve not worked together for nearly ten years, we have remained in contact. Intermittent social media posts have kept us informed about what we’re each doing, how big our kids have gotten and where someone is working next. Better yet, there would be periodic get-togethers where we would pick up as though no time had passed.
As I read the series of texts coming in from my old friends, I realized there was a big piece of information that I hadn’t received. “It’s just terrible” read one, “It doesn’t even seem real” read another. COVID had put a bigger gap in our already infrequent visits, so I had a bad feeling from the tone of the exchange. “Wait, what happened to Dave?”, I asked. I could tell from the delay in a response that nobody wanted to tell me. Finally, a text came in that shared the news. “Christine died this morning. It was colon cancer. They didn’t tell many people and it happened very quickly.”
My heart sank as I remembered Dave’s beautiful wife. Fifty years old, by all accounts an active, healthy woman with many decades ahead of her. I remember attending their wedding and seeing their adventures together play out over the years. They had a love story that was inspiring and enviable.
The news of Christine’s death could not have been more timely. I had just had my annual check-up and, based on my age of 49, my provider suggested I take an at-home test that screens the stool for evidence of pre-cancerous polyps or colon cancer. After the news of Christine, I didn’t hesitate.
My provider prescribed an easy to use at-home screening kit that was delivered to my door. Simple instructions outlined how to collect a stool sample and return it to the laboratory where it would be tested for blood and/or abnormal DNA.
After about a week, I received a message from my provider – the test came back positive and I would need to get a colonoscopy. I couldn’t help but think of my friend.
I soon had a colonoscopy appointment with Kootenai Clinic Gastroenterologist, David Johnson, M.D. Throughout the entire process, he and his care team made me feel at ease and I knew, whatever the outcome, I was in good hands.
Most colorectal cancers begin as a polyp, or, abnormal growth in the colon or rectum. Some types of polyps can change into cancer over time, but not all polyps become cancer. Removing polyps is a way to prevent cancer from developing.
“Colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of death from cancer in the United States, yet it can be prevented by removing polyps, or cured with surgery when detected at an early stage”, said Dr. Johnson. “Several types of tests can be used – visual tests (colonoscopies) and stool tests that you can administer easily at home. The most important thing is to get screened.”
Kootenai Clinic Family Medicine physician, Ryan Gilles, M.D. added, “it’s so important for primary care providers to make their patients aware of the importance of colorectal screening and the different options available to them. Colonoscopies are still the gold standard for detecting precancerous polyps, but at-home stool tests are also very effective. They are a great option for those who may have a hard time getting to a medical center that performs colonoscopies or have general reservations about the procedure. What matters most is that patients get tested so we can detect and remove precancerous polyps before they become cancer.”
To Dr. Gilles’ point, Dr. Johnson was able to pinpoint and remove precancerous polyps during my colonoscopy. I now know to schedule regular colonoscopies as an ongoing preventive measure for my colorectal health.
“There is a big difference in the survival rate among those with stages 1-2 colorectal cancer and those with stages 3-4,” said Dr. Johnson. “We see a lot of colon cancers that could have been prevented had abnormalities been detected early. We strongly recommend you talk to your health care provider about screening options, including a colonoscopy or an at-home test, and call us at the first sign of symptoms.”
Dr. Gilles added, “it’s so important to take charge of your own health. As physicians, we’re here to work with you to provide you with the preventive tools you need to live your best life.”
I am one of the lucky ones. My provider knew I should take steps to monitor my colorectal health. I now know to get a colonoscopy again in three years to keep tabs on any potential new abnormalities. My care team at Kootenai Clinic also informed me of additional preventive measures that are helpful in maintaining colorectal health, such as a diet rich in vegetables, fruits and whole grains and getting regular exercise.
If you are age 45 or older, talk to your primary care provider about the colorectal screening option that works best for you.
For more information, visit kh.org/gastroenterology/ or call 208.625.4596
Colorectal Cancer Q&A
- Colorectal Cancer Symptoms
People do not always have symptoms, especially in early stages ¾ that’s why it is important to get tested. Contact your health care provider if you notice any of symptoms such as blood in your stool, abdominal pain, aches, or cramps that don’t go away, changes in stool characteristics, or unexplained weight loss.
- Who Should Get Screened for Colorectal Cancer?
Men and Women 45 or older. Talk to your primary care provider for screening options.
- What Types of Tests Screen for Colorectal Cancer?
- Stool Tests: Done in the privacy of your own home. You will not need sedation, special preparation, or time off from work or regular activities.
- Colonoscopy (Visual Tests): This test uses a tube with a tiny camera to look inside your colon and rectum to identify and remove polyps and/or cancerous-looking tissue. Dedicate a day to prepare and a day to recover. Requires sedation.
- How Do I Pay for a Screening Test?
Most insurance plans, including Medicare, cover all of the tests listed above. Check with your insurance company about your coverage.