Colon cancer, colonoscopies and one woman’s story

On June 20, Lake Chelan Community Hospital & Clinics will be the happy host of a 10-foot tall pop-up, super-sized colon. Visitors can tunnel through the 20-foot inflatable large intestine, which weighs almost 150 pounds, to learn more about pre-cancerous conditions and the various stages of colon cancer, as well as cancer prevention and early detection. The event will be held at the Chelan Fire Station from 4–7 PM, during the evening farmers market at Riverwalk Park.

We invite shoppers with enough guts to visit Polly Polyp’s market stand and follow the poop emoji trail to the Super Colon, where they will have a chance to walk through the interactive exhibit. Visitors can also win prizes and enjoy family-friendly health, wellness and prevention booths.

Colon cancer, cancer of the colon and rectum, is the third most common cancer in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society, and the second leading cancer killer in the country. It’s also one of the most preventable and treatable cancers if detected early, says LCCHC general surgeon Dr. Tabetha Bradley, because it begins as small, benign polyps that can easily be removed before they turn into cancerous cells.

Colonoscopies are the gold standard in colon cancer prevention. When you have a colonoscopy, your doctor inserts a long, flexible tube called a colonoscope into your rectum. The scope has a tiny video camera at its end that shows an image on an external screen, so your doctor can view the inside of the colon, also called the large intestine. During the procedure, your doctor looks for polyps and remove any she finds using a wire tool with a loop on the end, threaded through the colonoscope. Removing polyps means they won’t turn into cancer.

However, things intestinal still remain a taboo subject for most people. That may be why about one in three adults from 50 to 75 years old still hasn’t been tested for colorectal cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 90% of cases occur in people who are 50 years old or older, and they often don’t show any symptoms in the early stages.

One Woman’s Story
When 52-year-old Tamara Wolf of Manson ended up in the emergency room at Lake Chelan Hospital with an ulcer a few years ago, the doctor recommended she get a colonoscopy. Like many patients, Tamara opted out. “Everyone told me the prep was awful, and the test was invasive,” she said. “And I didn’t have any symptoms. I didn’t think I needed one.”

A busy grandma of six, Tamara was enrolled in an online veterinary assistant training program. Between studying, grandmothering and selling her homegrown blueberries at the local farmers market, two years passed before she saw a doctor again, this time for a minor hernia.

During the exam, Dr. Bradley, like the ER doctor, recommended a colonoscopy, but Tamara turned it down again. However, when labs uncovered serious anemia, Bradley and Tamara’s family physician Dr. Tobe Harberd insisted she at least take a stool sample test. The results showed blood in the stool, and her medical team refused to operate on the hernia until she had a colonoscopy. Tamara finally agreed to the test.

Harberd performed the screening. As he carefully thread the colonoscope through the ascending colon, he found a mass so large it blocked the camera’s passage. He had to reverse and exit after clipping a snippet to biopsy.

Tamara waited impatiently for the pathology results. When the phone rang the next day, Harberd had bad news. Tamara had Stage 2 colon cancer, meaning it had already spread throughout the organ. “My whole world crashed down around me,” she said. “I started to bawl. The first words out of my mouth were, ‘Am I going to die?’”

Bradley operated on Tamara soon after, removing her ascending colon, part of her small intestine called the cecum, and her appendix. Tamara was lucky. The cancer hadn’t spread outside of the bowel. They caught it just in time, she said. “If I’d put off a colonoscopy one more time, that would have been it.”

Now, almost two years cancer free, Tamara lives with a heavy routine of tests, blood work, CT scans and colonoscopies. She worries daily about the cancer coming back. It especially hits first thing in the morning, she says, when she wakes up. Every time she feels an ache or a twinge, she wonders if it’s cancer. Tamara has become an advocate for colon cancer screenings and would love to see Dr. Harberd have an overbooked colonoscopy schedule.

“This all could have been avoided if I had agreed to a colonoscopy when the doctor first suggested it,” she said. “They would have found the polyps earlier and removed them. If I had any advice, it would be to get your colonoscopy as soon as you can. It’s not that bad, and it may save your life.”

You are at higher risk of colon cancer if you’re 50 or older, are overweight or a smoker, or have a personal or family history of colon polyps or colon cancer. Younger people are exhibiting polyps more often, and researchers think it may be related to diet, lack of exercise and alcohol consumption. While many people with colon cancer do not experience any symptoms in the early stages, symptoms include rectal bleeding or blood in the stool, persistent abdominal discomfort, weakness, unexplainable weight loss, a change in bowel habits or stool consistency. Contact your doctor if you experience these symptoms.