Life-saving test for cancer

Colorectal cancer has a 90 percent chance for a cure if it’s found early, yet many are hesitant to get the cancer screenings that could be life saving.

Last month was Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, but the importance of getting screenings for it are imperative all year long, especially for those 50 or older, as colon cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in the U.S.

Heather Hampel, cancer genetic counselor with The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, said more than 6,000 people are diagnosed with colorectal cancer across the state and 42,000 are diagnosed nationally each year.

When Sharon Shaner, 54, of McConnelsville, received her diagnosis in October, it was after her daughter had been telling her she needed to get screened for it.

“My daughter is a doctor,” she said. “She kept saying, ‘Mom, you gotta go get a colonoscopy.’ I thought, ‘That’s disgusting.’ I didn’t want to.”

Shaner said after her insurance changed, screenings were covered.

“I said, ‘I guess I don’t have any more excuses,'” she said. “It wasn’t a big deal at all.”

After her colonoscopy, a small polyp was found in her colon. She said surgery was expected and it was almost a guarantee that it hadn’t gone to her lymph nodes.

“We got the pathology report back and one lymph node tested positive, so that meant chemo,” she said.

Shaner started chemotherapy in January. She just finished round six and has six more treatments to go.

“I’m halfway done with 12 rounds of chemo,” she said. “If I’d kept digging in my heels (over the colonoscopy), it would have just kept growing and gotten worse.”

Like Shaner, David Lenington, 51, was diagnosed with colorectal cancer last year.

Almost a year ago, the Marietta firefighter received his diagnosis when he went in for a colonoscopy.

“They advise when you turn 50 to go in for a colonoscopy…within minutes of starting (mine) a tumor was found,” he said.

Lenington said the initial thought was there was no cancer in his lymph nodes, but after the reports came back, the cancer had spread.

“It seemed like every time the doctor came and sat down beside me, it was bad news,” he said.

Lenington and Shaner have both stayed active throughout their treatments.

Shaner said having two Merle Norman shops has kept her on her toes for the last 10 years.

“For 10 years, I’ve worked six days a week,” she said. “Three in Zanesville and three (in Marietta).”

Shaner said every other week she has to take the week off to go through chemo treatments.

“For me to take a week off, that’s hard,” she said. “I work from home, but it’s just hard to sit around and not feel good. It’s bearable.”

Lenington said his doctors were astounded at his level of activity.

“(My doctor) was amazed at how active I was through treatment,” he said. “Through radiation, they recommend you take a whole month off. I only took two full shifts and two partial shifts off. What I tried to do was just live life as normal as I could.”

After six months of chemo and radiation, Lenington finished his last dose in January and is well on his way to recovery.

For those who have been diagnosed with colorectal cancer since last January, there is a study ongoing at hospitals across the state where testing is done to see if there is a genetic link to their cancer, said Hampel, an investigator for the study.

“The study identifies individuals with a hereditary cause for their cancer,” she said.

The link being studied is Lynch Syndrome, but Hampel said this is the first study that’s also targeting other genetic factors that may cause the cancer. Based on that, relatives can be tested as well to see if they are at high risk for colon cancer.

“We can identify which relative is also at risk so they can take a more aggressive surveillance and maybe prevent colon cancer,” she said.

Hampel said the importance of screening would be different for people based on their risk, but those who have a parent with Lynch Syndrome, and if they have it, may need screening as early as 20 and may have be be screened every few years. She said the expectation is about three percent of people in the study will have Lynch Syndrome.

Despite that, Hampel said, “We don’t want to overscreen people.”

Even if someone doesn’t qualify for the ongoing study, which is set to end in December, people can still seek a genetic counselor or cancer risk nurse, the closest of which is Gallipolis, she said.

Hampel said there are really only two factors that are real determinants for getting colorectal cancer.

“Age is the greatest risk factor, and family history,” she said. “Beyond that, there’s not as hard of evidence.”

Hampel did acknowledge that it’s possible diet and exercise can be factors. She said overall, for the general population, there is a five percent lifetime risk of getting colorectal cancer.

She added that everyone needs tested because colorectal cancer can be stopped before it turns cancerous.

“People don’t like to do it like they should, but it’s unbelievably effective,” Hampel said. “If (doctors) see polyps, they remove them right then and there. It stops colon cancer before it even starts…It’s definitely a real problem and it’s preventable.”

Shaner said at her businesses, many cancer patients come in to buy wigs, scarves, hats and turbans.

“God has a sense of humor,” she said. “I think it’s made me even more empathetic for what others are going through. There’s always a reason for everything.”

Lenington said his diagnosis has taught him not to worry about the little things and to live for now.

“(Cancer) makes you think about doing things now, living in the now…Things can change in a hurry,” he said.