Monday Medical: Taking colorectal cancer personally

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Yampa Valley Medical Center will present a free program, “Invest in Your Bottom Line: Colorectal Cancer: Get screened. It could save your life,” at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the hospital’s Conference Room 1. Mark Hermacinski, MD, FACS, and Mark McCaulley, MD, FACP, are presenting the Taking Care of Me talk.

Free test kits

As part of Colorectal Cancer Aware­ness Month in March, YVMC is distributing free Hemosure colorectal cancer test kits at the Tuesday program and throughout the month. Call 970-871-2500.

— Yampa Valley Medical Center’s focus on Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month in March brings a flood of memories and emotions to the McKelvie family. You see, we take this disease very personally.

Not a week goes by that I don’t hear the question: “How is Bill doing?”

My gregarious husband, a former teacher at Steamboat Springs High School, has a lot of friends in this community. This question could sound merely polite, but I know that it is more than a generic greeting.

It is a sincere and compassionate inquiry about the health of a man who is a two-time survivor of colon cancer and an advocate for timely screenings.

The “big C” entered our lives Feb. 16, 2000. That was the day that Dr. Mark McCaulley performed a colonoscopy on Bill and discovered a cancerous tumor. Surgery by Dr. Allen Belshaw removed the section of colon that contained the tumor, and a biopsy of the lymph nodes showed no spread of the cancer.

However, because the tumor had penetrated the outer wall of the colon, and there was a chance that some cancer cells had broken loose, Bill chose to get chemotherapy throughout a period of several months.

When Bill turned 53 in August that year, we thought we were home free. But cancer had other plans for us.

Just weeks before Bill’s retirement from teaching in May 2003, we found that the cancer had metastasized to his liver. So instead of celebrating a 30-year career and our 25th wedding anniversary, Bill was in a battle for his life.

Fortunately, miracles do happen.

Thanks to advances in chemotherapy drugs and the skills of our oncologist, Dr. Allen Cohn, our oncology nurse, Jan Fritz, and Denver surgeon Dr. Nathan Pearlman, Bill is healthy today.

I’m deliberately skipping the details of his one-year war that involved many months of pre-surgery chemo, a delicate surgery, and another round of chemo after his liver had healed sufficiently. Suffice it to say that his first year of retirement was no picnic.

Now it has been nearly seven years since Bill’s last dose of chemotherapy. He is tested regularly, and results to date have been something to cheer about. He says that he is cancer-free at this time, even though he feels that the disease always always is one step behind him, like an unwelcome shadow.

We don’t know how different our lives would have been if Bill had had a colonoscopy at age 50. He was only 52 when the cancer was discovered, and doctors told us it probably had been growing silently inside his colon for years.

However, we acknowledge that we had taken his health for granted by ignoring screening recommendations. While Bill can’t turn back the clock for himself, he has done the next best thing by going public about his disease and persuading others to learn from his example.

Please take a moment to think about your own health and these recommendations from the National Cancer Institute:

■ To find polyps or early colorectal cancer, people in their 50s and older should be screened.

■ Any person who is at higher-than-average risk of colorectal cancer should talk with his or her doctor about whether to have screening tests before age 50, what tests to have, the benefits and risks of each test, and how often to schedule appointments.

Colorectal cancer can be prevented or detected early. Once a tumor starts growing, it might have no noticeable symptoms. If you fit the age range or criteria listed above, give yourself a potentially lifesaving gift by picking up the phone and calling your doctor or primary care provider.

Many of our friends did just that, and they have thanked Bill for his encouragement. I hope this McKelvie health update can do the same thing for anyone reading this column.

Christine McKelvie is public relations director of Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at christine.mckelvie@yvmc.org.

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