Doctors miss colon cancer because too soon for screening

KCBD Newschannel 11 at 10 3/20/2019 Healthwise colon cancer

LUBBOCK, TX (KCBD) - Dr. Davor Vugrin has been leading the South Plains colorectal cancer prevention task force for 12 years, trying to get the word out that colonoscopy screening can find polyps or growths in the colon and remove them before they become cancer. His office today is filled with big pictures of survivors who want to spread the word that colon cancer is curable if found early.

John Reed, a Lubbock man, would like to be one of those survivors, but while his cancer is spreading, he is on a mission to get more people screened and more frequently.

John wrote me a letter that I shared with Dr. Vugrin. His response was, “Yeah, this is a very impressive family history. It raises a red flag.” Dr. Vugrin learned from the letter that John is now a colon cancer patient who knew he was high risk for colon cancer 25 years ago. In an interview with John, he told me, “My sister died of colon cancer when she was 45. They found it when she was 43.” John was 40 at the time and began colonoscopies every five years. Doctors never found any polyps, or pre-cancerous growths, until his colonoscopy at age 60.

John explains, “When I was 60, they removed the polyps and in three and a half years, it had gone from no cancer to stage 4 – and covering the liver.”

Instead of a colonoscopy, it was persistent and severe abdominal pain that finally took John to the emergency room where CT scans found the cancer 18 months before it was time to screen for it. John says, “And I couldn’t believe my GI doctor said ‘let’s wait another year because it hasn’t been five years yet.’”

John says in his letter that four physicians including his gastroenterologist told him he was still a year away from his next colonoscopy… even though they all knew his sister and a great aunt had died of colon cancer with many other cancers in the family.

And now John, who has stage 4 colon cancer which has invaded both lobes of his liver.

Dr Vugrin says this is exactly what his task force is trying to prevent by educating patients and encouraging doctors to look for colon cancer. He explains, “In people with average risk it takes about 15 to 20 years to evolve from a polyp to cancer. But in people with inherited genetic abnormality, it may take two to three years.” That’s why Dr. Vugrin says genetic testing is so important when any cancer shows up.

But, in John’s case, he and his family were tested and there is no genetic reason for the cancers in his family. Dr. Vugrin says there is reason enough to put John’s bloodline into a high risk category for screening. “In that group, you start some earlier and more frequently,” Dr. Vugrin says.

The American Cancer Society says everyone needs a colonoscopy by age 45. But if it’s in the family, Dr. Vugrin says colonoscopy should begin 10 years before the age when the youngest was diagnosed, with a followup colonoscopy within 5 years if there are no polyps, or every year or two if a polyp is found.

And that is what John says doctors and patients need to know. Dr. Vugrin agrees.

Meanwhile, John says he is not resentful. Instead he is upbeat as he continues his chemo treatments. And at home, he and his wife, Debbie, keep a positive attitude as they map out a plan to fight cancer… and try to help others avoid this difficult road.

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