Published on March 17, 2017

Fighting Colorectal Cancer

Two Genesis Patients Share Their Story

Kay Friederichs and her granddaughter, Jill.

Kay Friederichs and her granddaughter, Jill.

Kay Friederichs hadn’t been feeling well. After a trip to the Emergency Room and subsequent surgery, she received an unexpected diagnosis: advanced colon cancer.

The Dixon, Iowa grandmother has these words of wisdom during March’s National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. “If you’re 50 and older, get a colonoscopy. I never had one, and I hear the screening isn’t so bad…it’s definitely easier than cancer.”

She is now undergoing cancer treatment with Dr. Susannah Friemel at Iowa Cancer Specialists with the support of her family, including granddaughter, Jill, with whom she shares a special bond. “I just want to be there for her,” her granddaughter says. “I can be a second set of ears for her at doctors’ appointments…help her out at home…get her medications ready. We’re doing this together.”

Breaking the Silence

Colorectal cancer is a serious disease, and prevention is made all the more challenging because many don’t want to talk about it.

Enter the 20-foot-long, 8-foot-high inflatable “Strollin’ Colon,” which made a March 14 appearance at the Genesis Cancer Care Institute. Visitors walk through this very large visual aid and see replicas of cancerous and non-cancerous polyps and various stages of colon cancer. It’s an effective way to get people aware of the disease and the importance of screening.

Colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. However, it can be prevented and detected early with the help of a screening colonoscopy. Routine testing is recommended beginning at age 50, or earlier if there is a family history, says Wendy Ballou, Genesis cancer nurse navigator.

By avoiding a colonoscopy when recommended, people miss the opportunity for prevention or life-saving early detection and treatment. Nearly all colon cancers begin with benign polyps on the bowel wall. Over time, they may grow and become cancerous. During a colonoscopy, the polyps can be removed without surgery for further study.

“Looking back, I wish I would have had a colonoscopy,” Kay Friederichs says.

Younger People Getting Colon Cancer

Amy Vargas was diagnosed last May with colon cancer

Amy Vargas was diagnosed last May with colon cancer

At age 38, Amy Vargas wasn’t thinking about screening colonoscopy. Like most people her age with no family history of the disease, she figured the test was at least 10 years down the road for her.

However, she experienced symptoms that signaled something wasn’t right for an entire year before getting medical attention. Today, the busy mom and wife acknowledges she waited too long to get checked out. “By the time I went to the doctor, I was 98 percent sure I had cancer. I had a colonoscopy, and in two weeks, I was having 8 inches of my colon removed. The cancer had metastasized to my liver, and I also had surgery to remove parts of my liver.”

Diagnosed with advanced colon cancer last May, Vargas completed her last chemotherapy treatment in December 2016 and says she couldn’t have done it without the support of family and friends.

“Chemotherapy is hard; I won’t say it’s not,” Vargas says. “It’s the side effects that get you down. Some days, it was hard to get out of bed, and it changed my daily living.”

Vargas represents a growing statistic. While the vast majority of colorectal cancers are still found in older people, scientists are reporting a sharp rise in colorectal cancers in adults as young as their 20s and 30s. Colorectal cancer rates have been increasing for every generation born since 1950, the study by the American Cancer Society found.

Young people with colorectal cancer run the added risk of getting a diagnosis later in the course of their disease when the cancer is less treatable, because doctors often don’t consider the diagnosis at such a young age.

“Don’t second-guess your symptoms,” Vargas says. “If you experience anything out of the ordinary, get it checked out.”

Look For These Symptoms

Symptoms of colorectal cancer can include:

  • A change in bowel habits such as diarrhea, constipation or narrowing of the stool
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Blood in the stool
  • Sudden weight loss and fatigue

People at higher risk include those who:

  • Are 50 or older
  • Have a family history of colorectal cancer or inflammatory bowel diseas;
  • Are sedentary, overweight or obese
  • Have Type 2 diabetes
  • Eat red and processed meats
  • Smoke
  • Are heavy alcohol users

--By Linda Barlow, Genesis

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