Colon cancer is the second deadliest cancer, responsible for an estimated 50,000 deaths each year. But thanks to increased colon cancer awareness efforts, the death rate has been dropping steadily since the 1980s. This includes a push for regular screenings. For someone at an average risk of colon cancer, the American Cancer Society recommends having a colonoscopy once every five to 10 years beginning at age 45.
Approaching her late 50s, Farmington resident and third grade special education teacher, Barb Wilfong, had never undergone a colonoscopy.
“Unfortunately, it just wasn’t a priority for me. I’m busy with work, but knew I needed to get it done at some point. It never seemed like a pressing issue for me, particularly since I didn’t have any history of colon cancer in my family,” said Wilfong. “Admittedly, I also didn’t exactly love the idea of undergoing a colonoscopy.”
It wasn’t until an appointment with Sarah R. Becker, FNP, a family nurse practitioner at Parkland Health Center, in the fall of 2019 for a routine sinus infection that the subject became more pressing.
“I always try to go over health maintenance with patients at every visit, so that nothing gets missed. I noticed Barb had never had a colonoscopy even though she had a history of breast cancer,” said Becker. “She said she was hesitant to get a colonoscopy, so I convinced her to consider the Cologuard kit instead, which is noninvasive, and she agreed.”
Cologuard is the only stool-DNA screening test for detecting colon cancer that is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The test can be done conveniently at home. Cologuard determines if there’s blood in stool and looks for changes in a person’s DNA that could indicate the presence of colon cancer or precancerous polyps that might be present in the colon.
In October 2019, Wilfong purchased a Cologuard kit and did the screening at home. She sent in her sample and quickly heard back that she had a positive result. So, the next month, she underwent a colonoscopy, which confirmed what Wilfong had been fearing: She had colon cancer.
Wilfong was then referred to a team of gastrointestinal oncology specialists, including a surgeon and oncologist. They did a CT scan, which not only indicated issues in the colon, but also identified a growth on her left kidney. The team focused on the colon first but cautioned Wilfong that they would eventually need to address her kidney issue.
In December 2019, Wilfong underwent intensive radiation treatments five days a week for four weeks. Six weeks later, on Monday, March 23, 2020 – also the day the U.S. essentially shut down due to the global COVID-19 pandemic – she had surgery to remove the cancerous part of her colon.
“I was a little scared that day – partly from the idea of surgery, but also because of the pandemic,” recalled Wilfong. “My husband couldn’t stay with me, which made the process that much scarier.”
Wilfong remained an inpatient for five days after the surgery. She also had to have an ileostomy bag placed for the next six months as she healed from surgery. In late April 2020, Wilfong began chemotherapy, going every two weeks until the end of July 2020. The pandemic certainly made things more challenging, but Wilfong managed to find some silver linings in her treatment.
“I was lucky that none of my services ever had to be canceled due to the pandemic,” said Wilfong. “I was also fortunate that my school transitioned to virtual learning, which meant I could stay home and heal while still teaching. I also didn’t have to worry about risking any exposure to COVID, particularly while I was immunocompromised from my cancer treatments.”
In October 2020, Wilfong underwent a follow-up scan and bloodwork, which indicated that there were no signs of colon cancer. She also had her ileostomy bag removed. The CT scan did confirm that she likely had stage one kidney cancer. So, in December 2020, Wilfong underwent a second surgery – this time, it was to remove her left kidney. She’s doing well today and continues to recover at home. She has also returned to virtual teaching part-time.
“I know 2020 was a crazy year for everyone, but I’m grateful in a weird way for the pandemic, because it gave me much-needed down-time to heal,” said Wilfong. “I’m also eternally grateful to Sarah Becker. If she hadn’t suggested the Cologuard kit, I don’t think I ever would’ve followed through with the colonoscopy. And I may not be here today.”
Becker is also thankful that Wilfong came in for a visit that day and heeded her advice about doing a colon cancer screening.
“Often by the time a cancer is caught due to symptoms, it’s in advanced stages, making treatment exceedingly difficult or impossible. Catching a disease process early decreases mortality drastically,” said Becker. “It’s so important for patients to still come in for preventative visits, even during these trying times. Barb is living proof of that. I know people are scared to get out and come to the office, but online visits are also available.”
As we recognize National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month during March, patients are encouraged to contact their primary care provider to learn more about the importance of preventative screenings, including the medical necessity of a screening colonoscopy. Individuals who do not currently have a primary care provider can call Parkland Health Center’s physician finder line at 573-431-3338 to schedule an appointment with a health care provider.