Screening saves lives

Survivor encourages testing after bout with colon cancer

Survivor encourages testing after bout with colon cancer

March 17, 2003|by KATE COLEMAN

George Smith thought he had the flu at the end of July. But after he became severely ill with diarrhea, Jenny, his wife of more than 45 years, took him to the emergency room Aug. 3.

"You talk about pain," says Smith, 64.

Tests revealed that Smith had a tumor the size of a small orange on his colon.

George Smith had colon cancer.

Dr. Karl P. Riggle, a general and vascular surgeon, performed surgery to remove the growth and a section of his large intestine, Smith says.

As he came out of recovery, Smith, a NASCAR fan, asked his son who won the race. He was pleased that the response was Jeff Gordon. But during months of chemotherapy, Smith had some hard times. There were times when the Hagerstown resident wanted to give up.


"But I didn't," he says.

Smith is doing well and says doctors tell him his prognosis is good. He says he's grateful that his illness helped his daughter Patricia Passerell to have her breast cancer diagnosed and treated.

Smith's doctor recommended that his children be screened for colorectal cancer. Even though they are younger than 50 - the age at which the American Cancer Society's guidelines advise that screening begin - Passerell and her siblings are at higher risk because their father had colon cancer.

Last spring Passerell had found a lump in her breast. She had a mammogram, but no treatment was recommended. When Riggle recommended that she be screened for colon cancer, she told him about the lump, and she says Riggle advised a closer look. Passerell had surgery to remove the malignant lump last fall. Thirty-three radiation treatments later she is taking tamoxifen, a drug to prevent the cancer from recurring.

With all that out of the way, Passerell had a colonoscopy last week. Her two siblings who live in Washington County were screened with good test results.

Smith was treated and his children were screened through Washington County Health Department's Colon Cancer Prevention, Education, Screening and Treatment program, which is funded by Maryland's Cigarette Restitution Fund. The program pays for treatment and screening for those who meet income eligibility requirements.

Since the program began in July 2001, health-care practitioners have screened 76 county residents and treated two for colorectal cancer, says Washington County Health Department's Kimberly Rasch.

Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in Maryland, which has the sixth highest mortality rate among the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

In the United States, colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths, according to the American Cancer Society. The organization estimates that 147,500 new cases of colon and rectal cancer will be diagnosed this year and more than 57,000 Americans will die from colorectal cancer in 2003.

Despite those numbers, colon cancer is a preventable disease, Riggle says.

Screening, which can lead to early detection, is important. The American Cancer Society recommends that all men and women 50 and older be screened for colorectal cancer. Options include a fecal occult blood test every year and flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years. Doing both annual fecal occult blood test and sigmoidoscopy every five years is preferred over either option alone. Other options are a colonoscopy every 10 years or double-contrast barium enema every five to 10 years. A rectal exam should be done at the same time as sigmoidoscopy, colonoscopy or double-contrast barium enema. People at higher risk for colorectal cancer should talk to their doctor about a different testing schedule.

The slender flexible tube used in the sigmoidoscopy is about 2 feet long and provides a view of about only half of the colon. Riggle says he's done virtually no sigmoidoscopies in the last three years. The more extensive colonoscopy, which enables examination of the entire colon, is covered by Medicare and many insurance companies, Riggle says.

The procedures can detect polyps - smooth growths - on the intestinal wall. Approximately 80 percent of colorectal cancers develop from benign polyps, according to the American Cancer Society. If small polyps are detected, they can be removed during the procedure and sent to a lab to be evaluated for cancer. If larger growths are found, a biopsy will be done and sent out for lab testing.

More than 4,250 colonoscopies were performed in Washington County in 2001. That number grew to more than 6,400 in 2002, Rasch reports.

But people still are reluctant, Riggle says. "No way. I'm not having that done," people tell him.

Preparation for the invasive tests, which includes laxatives, is unpleasant.

"It's awful," Riggle admits.

But George Smith will tell you screening saves lives.

If you go

Second annual colon cancer awareness event

7 to 8:30 p.m. Saturday, March 22

Martin Luther King Center

131 W. North Ave.


For information, call 240-420-1796.

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