Still recovering from having 12 inches of her colon removed, Susan Jackson was scared.
Doctors had found a cancerous polyp in Jackson’s large intestine during a routine colonoscopy, the first one she had in more than 10 years. The surgery was successful, but she was concerned about what the next step in her cancer treatment would be.
To her surprise, her surgeon, Dr. Frederick Lane, quickly eased her worry. He told her that she was cured.
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“Her colonoscopy saved her life. If she wouldn’t have a screening colonoscopy, in a year or two, this would have been a lot bigger and been unfixable at that point,” said Lane, a colon and rectal surgeon with Franciscan Health Indianapolis.
Jackson is convinced that if she had waited longer to get the screening done, it’s likely the cancer would have grown, possibly spread, and required more intensive surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy. With one test, she was able to keep her experience and her recovery relatively simple.
The 70-year-old Prince’s Lakes resident wants to share her story to help other people understand the importance of the screening tool and illustrate how it changed her life.
“If I can tell other people, I want to. The idea that they caught this, and I didn’t have to do chemotherapy, that I was cured, is pretty miraculous,” she said. “If the worst happens, and cancer is found, it can be cured in its earlier stages where if you wait, you’re going to go through a whole lot more pain and illness.”
Colorectal cancer — tumors located in the large intestine and rectum — are the third most common form of cancer in the U.S. Between 2008 and 2012, Indiana averaged more than 3,000 new cases of colorectal cancer each year. More than 1,100 Hoosiers died per year over that span.
In Johnson County between 2010 and 2014, an average of 70 people per year were diagnosed with the cancer.
Colorectal cancer starts with small clusters of non-cancerous cells called polyps, which over time can develop into tumors.
“Colon cancer can be silent. The most common symptom is rectal bleeding, but most people that I see have no symptoms, or no symptoms that they recognize,” Lane said.
Anyone over 50 years old is advised to get a colonoscopy, unless they have risk factors with colon cancer or Crohn’s disease, which may require an earlier screening.
Jackson had put off her colonoscopy for 12 years. Though she understood that it was important aspect of preventative care — a point her physician emphasized every year for her regular Medicare checkup — there was always something that prevented her from doing it.
Most recently, it had been finding someone to accompany her to the colonoscopy appointment. Because the sedative given during the procedure causes drowsiness, patients are unable to drive home by themselves afterward.
But both of Jackson’s daughters live on the West Coast, and she had no other close family that she felt she could ask to drive her.
“It’s kind of a private thing, and you really don’t want someone taking you that you don’t feel comfortable with,” she said.
In October, she again went for her yearly checkup. This time, her physician pointedly told her that she needed to get this test done. Resolved to do it, she enlisted the help of a pair of friends that she was close with.
Her appointment with gastroenterologist Dr. David Brown was in December, and after conducting the colonoscopy, Brown reported that they had found one polyp in the sigmoid portion of her colon, but that it did not appear to be anything to worry about. They would test it regardless, but it did not seem to be cancerous.
Three days later, Jackson was preparing for her weekly water aerobics class when she received a concerned phone call from Brown. Test results had come back from the polyp, and it was Stage 2 cancer, meaning it had passed through the wall of the colon.
An immediate appointment was made for Jackson to visit Lane. He laid the groundwork for surgery — his recommendation was to remove a section of her colon where the cancerous polyp was found. He used a special dye to mark the portion of colon that needed to be removed.
“At least from all of her testing, it looked like she had an early cancer, so she just needed surgery, which would be the ideal method of treating colon cancer and the only way to cure it, basically,” Lane said.
Surgery was scheduled for Jan. 17, allowing Jackson to fly to Oregon to see her daughter and family for the holidays. That trip was vital for her, not only so she could be among loved ones, but so she wouldn’t dwell on the situation.
“I knew that if I kept moving, mentally, it wouldn’t catch up with me. If I sat at home by myself for Christmas, I would be thinking about it the whole time,” she said.
Returning from Oregon, Jackson plunged into preparations for her surgery. She had a CT scan to check for other tumors and to see if the cancer had spread. Though none were found, the scans did reveal that her gallbladder was enlarged and thick. Surgeons decided to remove it as well as the section of colon.
Jackson also had to go through a battery of tests, including blood work, to ensure that she was healthy enough for surgery. She was given a rigorous schedule leading up to the surgery, including taking supplemental nutrient drinks and stool softeners to clear out her system.
On the day of her surgery, family members and friends came to Franciscan Health Indianapolis to support her and wish her good luck. Jackson was admitted to the hospital, and the procedure started at noon with the removal of her gallbladder, followed by surgery to take out the diseased colon.
The surgery was done laparoscopically, with Lane and his team making a small incision and completing the removal using cameras and small tools.
Lane also removed lymph nodes to see if the cancer had spread. It had not.
“Dr. Lane came in, in his scrubs, looking like he was just out of the operating room. He came in, took my hand and said that the lymph nodes were clear,” Jackson said. “I thought it was remarkable that he rushed in to tell me.”
The recovery was surprisingly mild. An avid college basketball fan, she spent most of her time laying down watching any game that was showing on TV.
Though Jackson was concerned about what she could eat and what her repaired bowel could handle, she was told that basically she could eat anything besides raw vegetables and steak. Starting with chicken noodle soup, she slowly added more to her diet.
She became more active, and now notices almost no lingering effects from her surgery. Jackson is back teaching part-time at Ivy Tech Community College in Franklin, and even traveled to Tuscon, Arizona, to visit her daughter.
“I feel better than I’ve felt for a long time,” she said. “It makes you think. Life is short. You have to face reality.”
Here are 6 ways to help protect your colorectal health.
Get screened for colorectal cancer: Screenings are tests that look for cancer before signs and symptoms develop. Colorectal screenings can often find growths called polyps that can be removed before they turn into cancer.
Eat lots of vegetables, fruits and whole grains: Diets that include lots of vegetables, fruits and whole grains have been linked with a decreased risk of colon or rectal cancer. Eat less red meat and processed meats, such as hot dogs and some luncheon meats.
Get regular exercise: If you are not physically active, you have a greater chance of developing colon or rectal cancer. Increasing your activity may help reduce your risk.
Watch your weight: Being overweight or obese increases your risk of getting and dying from colon or rectal cancer.
Don’t smoke: Long-term smokers are more likely than non-smokers to develop and die from colon or rectal cancer.
Limit alcohol: Alcohol use has been linked with a higher risk of colorectal cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women.
— Information from the American Cancer Society
Common signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer
- No symptoms
- Rectal bleeding
- Blood in stool
- Change in bowel habits
- Cramping pain in lower abdomen
- Extreme fatigue
Beginning at age 50, both males and females with average risk for colorectal cancer should follow one of these testing schedules:
Tests that find polyps and cancer:
- Colonoscopy every 10 years; or
- Flexible sigmoidoscopy, double-contrast barium enema, or CT colonography, also referred to as a “virtual colonoscopy,” every five years. If any of these three tests are positive, a colonoscopy should be done.
Tests that primarily find cancer
- Yearly fecal occult blood test or fecal immunochemical test or a stool DNA test. If any of these three tests are positive, a colonoscopy should be done.
Individuals who have an increased risk should talk to their health care provider about whether they should be screened at a younger age, more frequently or with colonoscopy.
— Information from the Indiana Cancer Consortium’s Indiana Cancer Facts and Figures