Colon cancer survivor now swears by early detection testing

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Carl Ferguson says the side effects of chemotherapy were not too bad, and the results were worth it.

Carl Ferguson felt he had nothing to fear. He felt good. He led an active lifestyle and his lean physique showed it. So when his wife pressured him to go to the doctor for a physical, he wasn't worried.

"Really the only thing that had been bothering me was a little indigestion."

At his appointment in 2009, his family physician, Dr. Martin Brauweiler, conducted a physical exam, did some blood work and suggested Carl conduct a take-home fecal test. A few weeks later, the doctor called to tell Carl that his blood work came back normal, but that he still wanted Carl to take the fecal test. Finally he took the test and it came back positive for blood in the sample. Soon after, Carl, 53 at the time, was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer.

"They say a warning sign is blood in your stool, but I never saw anything. The (fecal) test is able to detect blood even when you can't see it."

There was no history of cancer in Carl's family and really the only other risk factor for him was his age (over 50 years old)."You don't have to feel bad to have cancer," he said.

Carl worked with a team of doctors, surgeons and specialists to create a treatment plan. He received a colonoscopy to determine the exact location of the cancer. Dr. David Faulk, the gastroenterologist who performed the colonoscopy, was able to tattoo the cancer from inside of Carl's colon so the surgeon, Dr. Richard Mason, could easily locate the tumor and remove it.

After the tumor was removed, Carl underwent chemotherapy treatments under the care of Dr. Ramesh Kola, medical oncologist and medical director of The Cancer Center at Valley West Community Hospital.

"The only side effects I had was being tired and some headaches, but it wasn't anything I couldn't live with if it meant getting rid of the cancer," said Carl, who is now back to work full time as a maintenance assistant at Plano High School.

"The doctors gave me very helpful information. They gave me lots of reference materials and told me new ways to be healthy; eat more protein, get regular exercise, quit smoking and have regular screenings. Don't wait when it's time to take a screening test. You're gambling with your life if you don't get screened," he said.
Dr. Kola echoes Carl's message about the importance of screening.

"Screening and catching colorectal cancer early have been found to reduce colon cancer mortality by 50 percent. Colonoscopy is a wonderful tool. Not only does it help in early diagnosis, it prevents a cancer from developing by removing polyps before they turn malignant. More and more people are doing them, and hopefully we will be seeing even fewer deaths," he said.

For men and women of average risk, a colonoscopy is recommended every 10 years starting at age 50. "If there's a family history or other high risk factors, then the first colonoscopy should be done at age 40 or 10 years younger than the relative who had it. During a colonoscopy, the doctor can remove any precancerous polyps or lesions right there and then." Dr. Kola said.

Carl adds, "Listen to your body. Pay attention to the smallest symptom. It could be nothing, but if you don't catch cancer early it could be devastating. Some people don't want to get screened because they are almost scared of the results. But life is so precious; you'll find there isn't anything you can't handle."

His battle with colon cancer was only the first of several. A year ago, a follow-up CT showed that his cancer had spread to his lung, liver and lymph nodes. More chemotherapy followed and, thankfully, the tumors in his lungs and lymph nodes no longer are visible. Chemo for the mass in his liver ended in January. Dr. Kola said Carl is now in remission, and is being monitored closely for any signs of recurrence.
"Carl is an incredibly positive individual, which has helped him through this," said Dr. Kola.

Readers can learn more about Carl and how his illness has motivated him and others on Valley West's Exceptional Encounters blog.

Talk to your doctor about scheduling a colonoscopy or get help finding a doctor at www.valleywestfindadoctor.org.
According to the American Cancer Society, signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer are:

* a change in bowel habits, such as diarrhea, constipation, or narrowing of the stool, that lasts for more than a few days;
* a feeling that you need to have a bowel movement that is not relieved by doing so;
* rectal bleeding, dark stools, or blood in the stool (often, though, the stool will look normal;
* cramping or abdominal (belly) pain;
* weakness and fatigue;
* unintended weight loss.

Most of these symptoms are more often caused by conditions other than colorectal cancer, such as infection, hemorrhoids, or inflammatory bowel disease. Still, if you have any of these problems, it's important to see your doctor right away so the cause can be found and treated, if needed.

More information about colorectal cancer and its risk factors can be found at the American Cancer Society website, www.cancer.org.