A Cancer Center success story: Spreading the message about colon cancer

Seeing the light
Seeing the light – EAMC surgeons experience advanced imaging with the new hybrid operating room
January 23, 2017
Organ donation
Organ donation: Giving the Gift of Life
April 3, 2017
J.T. Brown and Children

J.T. Brown was only 40 years old when he was diagnosed with stage 2 colon cancer. Several years before his diagnosis, he had what he now calls a God-ordained conversation with a friend.

“I had a friend years ago who was in her 30s,” Brown explains. “She told me that she first learned she had cancer by noticing blood in her stool—this was around five years ago. When I saw blood in my own stool, something I might not have thought much of normally, I recalled that conversation and decided to see my doctor.”

Colon cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death in the U.S., yet it is one of the few types of cancer that is almost completely preventable (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Even though this disease is largely preventable, the American Cancer Society estimates that this year, more than 50,000 people will die from this disease.

Brown, an Auburn University graduate and father of three young children explains that he never would have imagined being diagnosed with colon cancer at 40.

“I’ve been relatively healthy most of my life,” Brown notes. “I was an avid runner and took pretty good care of myself. When I found blood in my stool I was concerned so I went to my doctor and he ordered a colonoscopy.

“I was reassured that since I was so young it probably wasn’t cause for concern, but they wanted to check it out. That was in April 2016,” Brown said. “Dr. Foster performed my colonoscopy here at EAMC. I remember not being very worried, but after my procedure they said they had some concerns, and it was one of those surreal moments that I’ll never forget.”

After Brown’s colonoscopy, doctors diagnosed him with stage 2 colon cancer. He had surgery that removed a foot of his intestines and a tumor in the wall of his colon the size of a golf ball. After he recovered from surgery, it was time to begin treatment.

Brown chose to receive treatment at the Cancer Center of East Alabama, and Brandon Johnson, M.D., was Brown’s oncologist.

“I started chemotherapy in July 2016,” Brown says. “Dr. Johnson was great—he always listened to what I had to say and was very attentive. I remember Linda Parker (Oncology nurse) walked me through what chemo would be like step by step. Everyone there went out of their way to make me feel as comfortable as possible during a time of so much uncertainty.”

Brown explains that one of the main things that helped him feel better and stay motivated during chemo was exercise.

“One of the big things that really helped me was the Robert and Marjorie Goodson Oncology Wellness Program,” Brown remembers. “This program is a partnership between the Cancer Center and HealthPlus Fitness Center in Auburn. I received three months of personal training at HealthPlus through the program.”

Dr. Johnson notes that for cases like that of Brown, exercise can be beneficial.

“In general, chemotherapy for colon cancer doesn’t cause significant nausea, but fatigue is a problem,” Dr. Johnson says. “It’s important for patients to stay active during treatment, as continued debility may lead to an early stoppage of treatment resulting in subpar treatment.

“When I coach my patients on being active, I explain that I don’t want them training for a marathon!  I am looking for low impact exercise not necessarily designed to build muscle—even sitting in a chair at night and lifting a two-pound weight will help.

“Nutrition is important for us all,” Dr. Johnson said, “but especially so during chemotherapy. In addition, we have a dietician available in the Cancer Center to help patients with plans and questions.  In fact, our support includes nurses, social workers, a chaplain, volunteers (many who have had chemotherapy), a dietician and even a person skilled in assisting with the costs of care and medications.

“In my experience, people that utilize the services we can offer up-front will fare much better in the end.”

Brown notes that exercise was his personal way to fight his diagnosis and not give up.

“Exercising was one of the things that kept me going,” Brown says. “I worked out the entire time I was in chemo and it really helped me. I have joined HealthPlus permanently since then and now I still work out there regularly on my own.

“When you’re going through chemo you feel like death. My trainer encouraged me that I was never going to feel like working out during chemo, but if I pushed through and actually did it, I would feel better.”

In December 2016, after six months of treatment, Brown ended chemo and is considered cancer-free. When reflecting on his experience, Brown explains that cancer has changed his life in many ways.

“Going through this experience changed my life,” Brown says. “I am thankful to be alive and for every day that I have time to spend with my family and loved ones. I have three children and, after an experience like this, I definitely hold my kids a little tighter—I want them to know how much I love them.

“In some ways cancer has been a blessing—I have relied on God to get me through each day, and I’ve had an amazing support system from my loved ones and church family. I don’t look at my cancer as a negative thing anymore, I think God can use it in a powerful way.

“One thing on my heart after going through this is to do anything I can to help people know the risk, and to be an advocate for prevention. If I had not had a conversation with a friend several years ago I might not have been concerned about blood in my stool, and I might have waited until it was too late.”

According to Dr. Johnson, screening for colon cancer should begin at age 50 for the average patient.

“If you have a family member with a history of colon cancer, you may need to start earlier,” Dr. Johnson says.  “Colonoscopy is the test of choice—there are other methods, but at this point colonoscopy is the gold standard.  While nobody wants this done routinely, the process is relatively simple and our physicians go to great lengths to make it as comfortable as possible.

“Depending on the findings of the colonoscopy, you may need to repeat the test in 1 or 2 years, or maybe as long as 10 years,” Dr. Johnson continued. “We are looking for polyps – small growths that over time have a tendency to turn into invasive cancer.  If found during colonoscopy, they are usually removed at that time with few complications.

“Unfortunately, there a few symptoms that point specifically to a diagnosis of colon cancer,” Dr. Johnson explains. “One tell-tale sign is seeing blood in the stool – that should prompt a visit with your primary care physician to investigate further.  However, it’s fairly common for patients to be diagnosed with colon cancer in the absence of symptoms.  That is why it’s so important to undergo the screening colonoscopy to find the disease as early as possible.”