Suburban moms Shelly Collins and Pam Brandes have an awful lot in common. While they don't know each other, the Bartlett and Addison women have been on a similar cancer journey and share a profound message of determination, survivorship and the vital importance of lifesaving cancer screening.
They also are among the more than 14 million Americans living with and beyond a cancer diagnosis and celebrating cancer survivorship this month.
Wedding bells & colon cancer
For 50-year-old Shelly Collins of Addison, 2012 was a year of exhilarating highs and devastating lows. In June, the single mom who had been raising her developmentally disabled 18-year-old daughter alone, married the man of her dreams. She and her new husband, John, a firefighter/paramedic, and daughter, Paige, looked forward to starting a new life together, making a home and settling into married life.
The professional baker who made dozens of distinct individual cakes to adorn every table at her Navy Pier Odyssey wedding reception, says it was just months later when her world turned upside down.
"It was right after the wedding that I started not feeling well," recalls Collins, who was approaching her 50th birthday. "After hearing of my discomfort and irregular bowel symptoms, my physician recommended a colonoscopy. I put it off for a while, busy with work, my new life, and worried about drinking the prescribed fluids for the screening preparation."
Still not feeling quite right, in March 2013 she completed the lifesaving colonoscopy exam and couldn't have been more surprised when results revealed a grapefruit size mass in her lower digestive track.
A biopsy was done and three days later Collins got the call that changed her life. The sample was malignant. She had stage 4 colon cancer.
"I got the news during a phone call and was in total disbelief," says Collins, who recalls feeling not only the devastation of her diagnosis, but anxiety at the fear of what her treatment plan might involve. I called on my primary care doctor, was referred to another specialist and finally learned what all this would mean."
Collin's treatment included April 3 resection surgery at Cadence Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield, to remove 14 inches of her colon along with 17 lymph nodes. Eight months of challenging chemotherapy treatments followed.
"My husband, John, and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary on June 3 as I began aggressive chemo treatment," she says. "It was not the celebration we had planned and the treatment rendered me unable to work. My life and my career had to be put on hold."
Collins says she is exceedingly grateful to family and friends who stepped up to lend a hand and support during this time.
"My husband was so supportive and even my daughter, Paige, who has Down syndrome and is in a special Transition program at school, seemed to sense something wasn't quite right as I was too ill to play and do the many things we loved to do together."
Collins says her mom was her salvation who provided frequent care and caregiving. Throughout treatment, she says she would write journal-type letters to her mother, telling her about the surgery and chemotherapy, sharing her thanks, gratitude, emotions, hopes and dreams.
"My mom and my aunts with their constant prayers were the light in the darkness during some of the most difficult times," says Collins, who also credits friend, Catherine DeAlba, for her emotional support and comfort.
This past January, Collins learned from a PET scan of her cancer-free status. An April colonoscopy also was clean. She now follows up every three months with her doctor and, knowing the importance of the exam, will not postpone her one-year follow-up colonoscopy.
"If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone," Collins notes. "Don't put off the lifesaving screening exam! Even if you're not yet 50 and are having symptoms, talk to your doctor about colonoscopy screening."
A diagnosis out of the blue
Bartlett resident Pam Brandes, 52, the mother of two sons, says her 2010 colon cancer diagnosis also came out of the blue.
"I have asthma and do see my doctor regularly," she states. "But when troublesome gastrointestinal health issues like constipation and diarrhea began, I put off telling my doctor for about a year. When I finally did mention the symptoms, a colonoscopy was ordered."
The simple and potentially lifesaving screening exam changed Brandes' life. "Precancerous polyps were found," recalls Brandes, who at the time was only 48, and says due their size, surgery was recommended. "I had colon surgery in May at Sherman Hospital in Elgin to remove one-third of my colon. The small intestine was detached and replaced, and the colon biopsy sent for further study."
Biopsy results were shocking. She had cancer. Twelve grueling chemotherapy treatments in the ensuing six months left her tired, with numbness in her fingers and feet, and temperature sensitivities.
"After watching my parents battle lung and esophageal cancers, I was surprised to find I didn't have as many problems as they did tolerating treatment," the Hanover Township employee says. "My chemo was targeted specifically at my type of colon cancer and I had lots of support along the way."
Her supervisor at work, a young 34-year-old mom with two little boys, had been diagnosed with colon cancer prior to Brandes and was "an amazing influence" … even starting the Trisha Lynn Simon Foundation to underwrite free colonoscopy screening events for those at high risk for colon cancer and who would otherwise not be able to afford the lifesaving screening procedure. They also help with financial hardships some families face while going through treatment.
Brandes reports that her colleague lost her colon cancer battle in 2012, but her legacy continues through the Hanover Townships Office of Community Health, where she and co-workers work in support of the foundation. She says her colleague's experience and her own colon cancer experience changed her life.
"It's my turn to pay it forward," says the colon cancer survivor.
The take home message, she says, is if your doctor suggests a colonoscopy do it right away. "There is a reason and no time to waste. Go!"
Brandes notes that she did tell her doctor about her digestive problems and was advised to have a colonoscopy.
"I put it off for a year because I didn't feel I needed it," she states. "In my mind I thought 50 was when you start getting screenings and I was only 47. My doctor told me again to have it done and I finally did it a year later. If I would have had the screening test when she first told me, I may have been able to avoid surgery and chemo."
She credits her husband, John, for being "my rock through the treatment," and says she is thankful for the support of family, co-workers and friends.
About colon cancer
While a combination of earlier detection and better treatments have yielded a steady decline in the colorectal cancer death rate over the past 20 years, colorectal cancer will kill an estimated 50,310 people in the U.S. in 2014, including 2,190 in Illinois, according the American Cancer Society.
Of cancers affecting both men and women, colorectal cancer is the nation's second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths; however it is one of only two cancers -- the other being cervical cancer -- that can be prevented by screening.
It is one of only a handful of cancers for which screening is proven to save lives, both by finding and removing polyps before they turn cancerous and by finding cancers early, when treatment is most likely to be successful.
80 percent screening goal by 2018
"Our goal is to eliminate colon cancer as a major public health problem by increasing the nation's screening rate to 80 percent by the end of 2018," states Richard C. Wender, M.D., chief cancer control officer for the American Cancer Society and chair of the National Colorectal Cancer Roundtable, an organization co-founded by the American Cancer Society and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
About one in three adults in the U.S. who are aged 50 to 75 years have not been tested for colorectal cancer, as recommended by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, the American Cancer Society, and other key health organizations, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are several recommended screening test options, including: colonoscopy, stool tests (guaiac fecal occult blood test [FOBT] or fecal immunochemical test [FIT]), and sigmoidoscopy.
Dr. Wender says that despite research showing how colorectal cancer screening tests save lives, too many adults have never been screened.
"A lack of health insurance and not having a reliable source of primary care are the two biggest factors that delay screening," he reports. "Those less likely to get tested are Hispanics, people aged 50-64, men, American Indian or Alaska Natives, those living in rural areas, and people with lower education and income."
According to Dr. Wender, there also are people who, due to above average risk, need to be screened at younger ages, even prior to the recommended age of 50.
"Both screening options -- colonoscopy every 10 years or the annual stool blood tests -- are great," says Dr. Wender, who reports screening rates which have risen from 55 percent in 2000 to 65 percent in 2010 thanks to heightened awareness and availability.
Experts say tests that detect precancerous polyps allow doctors to remove the polyps and potentially prevent cancer altogether. While cancers detected at the earliest stage have a five-year survival rate of 90 percent, only 40 percent of colon cancers are currently detected at this stage, partly because too few people are screened.
"Public policies such as the Affordable Care Act are improving access to colon cancer screening, but we have a lot of work to do to ensure everyone has the opportunity to be screened," says Dr. Wender, who also notes that the health care landscape is changing. "Many of the common barriers to getting screened have been reduced by public policies, including the Affordable Care Act, that lower costs for most patients and improve access by requiring most insurance plans to cover colorectal screening."
Still, patients and providers do not always know about or consider all the available recommended screening test options.
Part of the 80 percent by 2018 goal is to leverage the energy of multiple and diverse committed partners in the community to empower patients, providers, community health centers and health systems to deliver coordinated, quality colorectal cancer screening and follow up care.
"We are at a remarkable point in time, when decreasing deaths and suffering from colorectal cancer is entirely possible. By working together, demanding more of ourselves, and collectively pushing harder, we can prevent more cancers, and save more lives," says Dr. Wender. "We must do more to ensure men and women get screened for colorectal cancer according to the guidelines. Testing saves lives, but only if people are tested."