Colon cancer is a silent killer
Survivor Anna Arthur talks about the importance of screenings
In our culture, many women shy away from telling others how old they are. As a 14-year survivor of colon cancer, Lexington resident Anna Arthur is more than willing to tell others her age and what it's taken for her to get there.
"I am 69 years old," Arthur says. "And I'm always proud to say that I've had another birthday."
A native of Hazard, Ky., Arthur began having symptoms of a gastrointestinal problem in 1995, when she noticed a little blood on her tissue after using the bathroom. She shrugged it off, not thinking it was a sign of anything serious.
"I thought maybe it was hemorrhoids," says Arthur. "And I really didn't pay that much attention to it for three or four months."
Then her great-aunt, who had received surgical treatment for colon cancer years earlier, died later that year with a tumor in her intestines. After reading over her great-aunt's medical records, Arthur decided to seek evaluation.
Arthur, who worked for Central Baptist Hospital in Lexington at the time, had a fecal occult blood test, a screening test used to detect blood in the stool, which can be a sign of gastrointestinal cancer. When the test came back positive, her physician referred her to a colorectal surgeon at the hospital, who wanted more testing.
"He said, 'Anna, have you ever had a colonoscopy?' and I said, 'No, and I don't want one!'" Arthur says with a laugh. But once he explained the process to her, she agreed to have the procedure.
Her colonoscopy revealed bad news — Arthur had a tumor in her colon. Based on the size, her physician said the tumor could have been growing for more than a year. Arthur underwent surgery and had eight inches of her colon removed. After her surgery, she followed her physician's directions and tried to adopt a healthier lifestyle.
"I did all the things that I was told to do," she says. "I learned how to drink Metamucil… I changed my diet, tried to lose some weight."
Despite her lifestyle changes, when Arthur went back for her first check-up after surgery, her physician found another problem — she had a new cancerous polyp in her colon. More surgery followed.
Dr. Mark Evers, director of the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center, says the recurrence of polyps is common in colon cancer patients.
"The risk of polyps is higher in patients with a personal history of colon cancer," Evers said. "So patients who have had a cancer of the colon or rectum need to understand that their risk of developing more polyps or another cancer is higher than the general population, and they need to remain vigilant with screenings."
Arthur goes in for a colonoscopy yearly, although recently she had to have four in a single year, due to a polyp that grew back three separate times even after being removed. She agrees that patients need to be watchful when it comes to screening for colon cancer.
"If you've never been tested, make sure you get tested. And if you have, do what the doctor says — come back in a year, two years, five years, for your follow-up," says Arthur. "In the meantime, you know your body. Don't ignore any symptoms."
All Americans should follow the American Cancer Society's guidelines for colon cancer screenings, Evers says. Screenings should begin at age 50, or earlier if the person has a strong family history of polyps or cancer.
"Colon cancer screenings save lives, " Evers said. "Not only do they show any lesions that already exist, but polyps that are caught when they're small can be removed safely through the colonoscope without the need for surgery later."
Arthur, who spends much of her spare time working at her church and fishing with her husband, says she never felt particularly "sick" or symptomatic before her diagnosis. She notes that no one should consider themselves immune to the disease.
"I used to think nothing would happen to me," says Arthur. "But I found out differently."
Arthur, who volunteers for the American Cancer Society and the Look Good, Feel Better program, was featured in a special photographic poster exhibit called "Faces of Colon Cancer," coordinated by the Kentucky Cancer Program. The exhibit, which features Kentucky colon cancer survivors and was designed to promote colorectal cancer screening, premiered at the Markey Cancer Center in August 2010 and was exhibited throughout the Commonwealth on a year-long tour.