Why You Need to Take Symptoms Seriously; Colorectal Cancer Diagnosis Shocks Family

Bill Carmichael thought he had developed a gluten allergy when his digestive problems began over a year ago.

He reduced the gluten in his diet, but the gas, bloating, loose stool, and frequent bowel movements continued. A home allergy test confirmed gluten wasn’t the issue. Bill thought maybe he’d developed irritable bowel syndrome.

“I had recently turned 50, so I knew I should schedule a screening colonoscopy, and this would be able to tell me why I was experiencing these symptoms,” he said. 

March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, a reminder to make sure you have a plan for cancer screening. Check your insurance policy and talk with your primary care provider to schedule a colonoscopy. 

Every year, more than 140,000 new cases of colon cancer are diagnosed nationwide, and 50,000 people die. Screening saves lives through early detection.

Bill Carmichael

Bill met with a primary care provider who diagnosed him with inflammation of the bowels and scheduled a colonoscopy, which revealed that Bill had a large tumor.

The pathology defined the mass as adenocarcinoma, a type of cancer. Follow-up MRI and CT scans clarified that he had stage 3C cancer that has spread into his lymph nodes but had not yet spread to more distant parts of his body.

“My family and I were shocked by the diagnosis as I had no family history of colorectal cancer, and cancer was not even a thought in my mind while I was experiencing my symptoms,” he said.

Treatment at the Benefis Sletten Cancer Institute (SCI) began immediately. Bill began with an 18-week chemotherapy regimen, followed by a five-week course of chemo and radiation combined. A surgeon removed much of his rectum, which was riddled with cancer. He awaits a surgery to reverse the ileostomy and then faces another round of chemotherapy.

“The care I have received from the Benefis SCI oncology and radiation oncology providers and staff as well as my surgeon and the acute care team at the hospital has been exceptional,” he said. “I don't feel that anything could have gone better.”

Bill highlighted the clear communication with his providers that put him at the center of care decision making – an empowering experience when life suddenly feels out of control. 

Bill Carmichael

New guidelines recommend having your first colonoscopy at 45 and then every 10 years (or more frequently if potential issues are detected), and if Bill could rewind, he would have talked to a doctor about his symptoms sooner.

“A screening colonoscopy is a walk in the park compared to the treatment regimen that I am navigating now,” he said. “We all know that hindsight is 20/20 and what we wished we would have done earlier, however, the reality is that I am dealing with a very serious and very scary diagnosis now.”

Even as he walks a path he never expected to travel, especially not at his age, Bill has remained positive, with help from the encouraging care at SCI and from his steadfast family, especially his wife, Amy, who picks him up when he feels low.

“Including Amy and encouraging family support, as well as the healthcare team, has been an important factor in treatment and the healing process,” he said. “SCI does a great job fostering this.” 

Have a question about colon/colorectal cancer?

We have answers, and for more information, visit the CDC

Q: What are some early warning signs of colorectal cancer?

A: Some early warning signs of colon cancer include changes in bowel habits that last more than a few days, rectal bleeding, cramping, gnawing stomach pain, decrease in appetite, vomiting, weakness, fatigue, and jaundice.

Q: How do I reduce my risk of colon cancer?

A: A low-fat and high-fiber diet, limited alcohol intake, an active lifestyle, forgoing tobacco, and maintaining a healthy weight reduce your risk of developing colon cancer. Other risk factors are having an ulcerative colon or Crohn’s disease, having cancer of the uterus or ovaries before age 50, past removal of the gall bladder, or past radiation therapy of the abdomen. Black people have an elevated risk as well.

Q: Does a colonoscopy hurt?

A: Patients are sedated and typically don’t feel or remember the procedure. The procedure usually takes 30-60 minutes, with a day of prep ahead to clear you out.

Q: How do I get a colonoscopy?

A: Talk with your primary care provider to schedule a colonoscopy. If you don’t have a primary care provider, we are happy to help you find one. Click here to learn more.

Q: When do I not need a colonoscopy?

A: If you’re older than 75, pregnant, with limited life expectancy, or have a high risk of sedation complications, a colonoscopy is not recommended for you.