By Michaela Gibson Morris
A new mother, an auto mechanic, a breast cancer advocate and a homemaker aren't the stereotypical images of colon cancer.
But Tina Clark, 30, of Sulligent, Ala., Alan Hutcheson, 34, of Saltillo, Sherry Abraham, 59, of Tupelo and Deb Adams, 47, of Mantachie are all colon cancer survivors.
Although colon cancer is most common in people over 50, it can strike at any age.
“They think of an older person with lots of constipation,” said Carah Edgeworth, a nurse practitioner with Digestive Health Associates in Tupelo. But it can strike young adults, and symptoms can range from a change in bowel habits to an unexplained anemia.
These survivors all share a deep appreciation for their faith, family and friends that helped them through cancer treatment, but otherwise they have few common denominators.
Hutcheson and Abraham are the only ones who had family histories of colon cancer. Only Abraham was diagnosed after the age of 50. Only Clark had a change in bowel habits. But they all were able to find their cancer before it spread beyond the colon and its adjacent lymph nodes.
Early detection is critical for surviving colon cancer, said Tupelo gastroenterologist Dr. Barney Guyton.
“More and more people are paying attention,” Guyton said. “But we still have a long way to go.”
The best case scenario is to nip colon cancer in the polyp, before it becomes cancerous and spreads into the colon wall. Colonoscopies give doctors a chance to check the whole colon and remove any polyps on the spot.
“Then it's truly preventable,” Edgeworth said.
Guidelines call for everyone to be screened for colon cancer by age 50. People with a close family relative – parent or sibling – with colon cancer should begin screening when they are 10 years younger than their family member was at the time of diagnosis.
Beyond the screening guidelines, people need to be aware of their bodies.
“Any lower abdomen pain, rectal bleeding, change in bowel habits, needs to be discussed with their doctor,” Guyton said.
Tina Clark, 30, was seven months pregnant with her son Brody when she was diagnosed with colon cancer.
At first, her obstetrician attributed chronic diarrhea to a bacterial infection, but when it didn't resolve with antibiotics, doctors took a closer look and found a tumor at the very bottom of her colon.
“It wasn't a good day,” said Clark, who has no history of colon cancer in her family.
They watched her closely for signs the tumor was closing off her colon, buying Brody a critical six weeks to grow, and then delivered him by Caesarian.
“He's my miracle baby,” Clark said.
When her son was 2 weeks old in April 2005, Clark had surgery that removed the tumor along with 18 inches of her colon.
She's had two rounds of chemotherapy with a course of radiation treatment in between. Her son will be 1 year old on April 1 and she is nearly finished with her final treatments.
Despite the difficulty of learning to be a mom and a cancer survivor, Clark counts herself lucky to have found her cancer during her pregnancy.
“I was never sick” and didn't regularly go to the doctor before she got pregnant, Clark said. “I wouldn't have found it.”
No red flags
There were no red flags to tell Deb Adams and her doctors to look for colon cancer. She had no family history of colon cancer and no change in bowel habits.
“I was anemic, but because of my age É colon cancer wasn't at the top of the list,” Adams said.
When iron pills didn't clear up the anemia, they sent her for more testing. Adams opted for a colonoscopy over a flexible sigmoidoscopy on a feeling. The sigmoidoscopy looks only at the lower third of the colon, but doesn't require sedation.
The gastroenterologist found the tumor at the very top of the colon where it connects to the small bowel.
“It was extremely unusual,” Adams said.
They took out 18 inches of her colon and another eight inches of her small bowel and sent her through six months of chemotherapy.
“I'm five years out,” said Adams, who is doing well. “But you don't ever forget.”
Sherry Abraham is a familiar face for her work on breast cancer advocacy. She is the founder and president of the Women First Resource Center in Tupelo and a champion for women's health issues.
But she was more focused on her family history of breast cancer and colon cancer almost slipped by her, despite the fact her father and grandmother died from colon cancer.
“I didn't want to take two days off,” she said. That's what was necessary to prepare for the colonoscopy and then sleep off the anesthesia.
Instead she ended up with eight months of chemotherapy when her colon cancer was discovered.
“It was in the same spot as my dad,” Abraham said. “I was very, very lucky,” and the tumor had only microscopic penetration into the colon wall.
Now she doesn't mind an annual trip for a colonoscopy.
“It's a very good sleep,” Abraham said.
Alan Hutcheson is a 12-year colon cancer survivor. The Saltillo man was diagnosed with colon cancer at the age of 21.
Hutcheson has a strong family history. His father had colon cancer when he was 23. His uncle died from colon cancer in his 50s.
But colon cancer wasn't even on his list of worries when he went to see his New Albany doctor for a cold that wouldn't go away in 1994.
“I had no idea,” Hutcheson said. “It wasn't on my radar screen.”
Fortunately, the physician had treated his father and when the red blood cell count turned up low, he sent Hutcheson for more tests.
Hutcheson was relatively lucky. The cancer had spread to his lymph nodes, but hadn't made it to any other organs.
Hutcheson went through a grueling year of chemotherapy.
“It took me two or three years to really get over the chemo,” Hutcheson said. “Family and friends are the biggest support.”
Now he has his own business – A & A Automotive Repair and gets a colonoscopy every five years.
“I've had no problems since then,” Hutcheson said. Colon cancer can be beat. “Dad and me, we're both living proof.”