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Speaking up for Colonoscopy

Health care success stories told by the people who lived them


Speaking up for Colonoscopy

Susan Clark

At age 56, UnitedHealthcare member Susan Clark was six years overdue for her first colon cancer screening. "I know you're supposed to get your first at 50. But, I just kept putting it off and putting it off," says the District Heights, Md., resident.

Part of the reason? Cancer didn't seem like much of a personal threat. She was healthy, a vegetarian who hadn't smoked in years. And, she stayed active with her beloved greyhounds that she rescued. Also, there wasn't a history of colon cancer in her family. "I really didn't think, in my case, that it was necessary," Clark says.

But, colonoscopy – one of the recommended forms of colon cancer screening – is now quite personal to Clark.

Caught in time

After years of procrastination, Clark finally had her first colonoscopy in May 2008. To her surprise, the test revealed a large growth – called a polyp – in the upper colon. A biopsy showed that the polyp wasn't cancer – but it had the potential to become cancerous. It had to be removed, her doctor told her.

So, in August 2008, Clark had surgery to remove the growth. Nearby blood vessels and lymph nodes, as well as seven inches of her colon, were also removed as a precaution. Then, the tissue was sent to the lab for testing.

A week after her surgery, Clark was back at home, caring for her greyhounds, when her phone rang. It was her surgeon calling about the lab results. In the time between Clark's first colonoscopy and the surgery – two months – the polyp had become cancerous.

But, there was good news as well. It was stage I. And, it had been removed early, before it could become a more serious threat to Clark's health.

"I was a little surprised," Clark recalls. "But, I wasn't fearful." She had learned that stage I offers a good prognosis. "The doctor said we obviously caught it in time," she says.

And, there was even more to be thankful for. Because Clark's cancer hadn't spread and was completely removed during surgery, she didn't need follow-up chemotherapy. She did require blood tests every three months and a subsequent colonoscopy a year later. After two years, she remains free of cancer.

Don't wait, don't hesitate

As Clark discovered, it's important to catch colorectal cancer early with screening tests such as colonoscopy, sigmoidoscopy or fecal occult blood testing. If the cancer is detected and treated at stage I – as Clark's was – the five-year survival rate is 74 percent, according to the American Cancer Society. But, if it isn't caught until stage IV, the survival rate drops dramatically – to 6 percent.

"If I had waited much longer, the cancer would have progressed," Clark says. "It had started as a small growth. But, by the time I had surgery, it was already stage I cancer."

So, take it from Clark. Even if you don't think you're at risk, talk with your doctor about being screened for colorectal cancer. Ask about your screening options and when and how often you should be screened. It's a discussion that's worth your time. In fact, it could save your life.

Spreading the word

Today, Clark spreads the word about the importance of preventive screenings to her friends. She assures "anyone who will listen and some who don't" that the worst part of colonoscopy is the laxative and bowel preparation before the test. It's working. "A couple of friends, I just nagged them into going," Clark says.

At first, she was a little embarrassed to talk about it. Breast cancer and pink ribbons get a lot of attention. Colon cancer? Not as much. "It's not the most glamorous thing," Clark says. "But, then I said, 'You know what? This is silly.' So, I just started telling people." And, she'll keep telling them because she knows hers is a story that can make a difference.

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