By Nina Huang
Northwest Asian Weekly
Many people have a fear or feel embarrassed when it comes to colonoscopies. It’s not the most pleasant thing to talk about, but after experiencing a family member go through colon cancer, it’s something that people need to talk about.
Colon cancer usually develops from polyps, which are small, non-cancerous clumps of cells. These polyps grow slowly over time and if not removed, they become malignant tumors.
My mother has been battling stage 4 colon cancer for the past few years and that prompted me to be proactive about my own health this past winter.
Breaking the social stigma
I had done research and called a couple of providers to get quotes because unfortunately, my health insurance plan didn’t cover colonoscopies, even if cancer runs in the family.
Of course, colonoscopies aren’t cheap and if you’re not 50 yet, you have to pay out of pocket. The procedure could range from $2,500 to $4,000 with anesthesia, and it could be even more depending on what they find during the procedure.
Nevertheless, I had planned to visit my mom who is still bravely undergoing chemotherapy in Taipei. I decided to schedule a colonoscopy while I would be there.
It was a painless procedure overall. In the few days before the procedure, I had to limit my food and drink intake to soft foods, like white bread, egg whites, jello, and clear broths. The day before, I drank a laxative powder combined with water – it tasted like artificial lemon flavoring. I chugged water after that and so began the cleanse. My evening consisted of multiple trips to the bathroom and virtually no food for the whole day. I also had to drink more of the lemon laxative powder the morning of the procedure, to make sure my colon was completely clean for a thorough examination.
The whole procedure probably took about an hour, including the anesthesia and recovery period. To be honest, the only “painful” part of the whole thing was the small prick in my right hand for the IV where they administered the anesthesia.
Everything else was a blur and that was a relief.
This month, I will be running a 10K on Mercer Island to raise funds for colon cancer prevention, organized by the Swedish Cancer Institute. It’s important for me to participate because of how the disease has impacted me and my family.
Colon cancer is a slow-growing disease that can creep up unexpectedly. Screening is crucial for early detection.
Cancer knows no age limit
Colon cancer is on the rise among millennials due to poor diet and lack of exercise, according to a 2017 report from the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Obesity rates are on the rise as well.
However, there is sometimes no explanation for why people get cancer.
Samantha Jimenez lost her late husband Jerome to a battle with colon cancer in November 2016. He was just shy of 33.
In March 2014, Samantha and Jerome were preparing for their trips to Las Vegas and India, respectively, when Jerome got the initial diagnosis.
While he was getting cleared for his work trip to India for his internal auditor role at Microsoft, his doctor asked if he had any health concerns. Jerome mentioned he had blood in his stool every so often, and his doctor advised him to get a colonoscopy.
After the colonoscopy and additional testing, Jerome was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer that had spread to his liver and lungs. He was 30 years old.
For someone who had a clean bill of health up until then, Samantha described those few weeks of getting test results as “bad news, after bad news, after bad news.”
Despite the news, Jerome approached the situation as he would for any other challenge. Samantha described him as very diligent, hardworking, and organized.
After the diagnosis, their priority and goal was to focus on the next steps. Jerome sought treatment at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. The medical team suggested the most aggressive chemotherapy treatment.
Jerome underwent chemotherapy for several months and CT scans showed that the tumors were shrinking and some were even gone.
The doctors also suggested surgery to remove the larger tumors in his colon and liver. He had the surgery, as well as subsequent maintenance chemo treatments, and he eventually was able to go back to work part-time.
Throughout the whole experience, Samantha and Jerome worked well together, whatever their circumstances were.
“We would adapt and try to stay the same, but adjust to whatever the needs are for the environment or situation. We went at it that way as if it was treatment day. The week after that, we work and try to successfully maintain the normalcy of our lives.
Treatment was an added part of our lives, but everything else that made up our life together remained the same, like our friendships. We’re definitely blessed to have a really core group of friends and families,” Samantha said.
Over the next year and a half, the couple continued to fight the cancer battle together. Jerome’s cancer had come back and they switched up the treatment plan. They tried radiation for a few months and although that worked for a while, the tumors kept coming back into his liver. At that point, clinical trials was the only option, Samantha said.
Jerome’s quality of life was much better on the clinical trial treatment than any other treatment, but over time, his health started deteriorating. That was when he had to start hospice care. This was right around the couple’s sixth wedding anniversary in September 2016.
He passed away two months later.
Their son Caleb was a toddler, and Jerome and Samantha worked with a social worker to help Caleb comprehend what was going on.
“Because Jerome wanted it to come from him, he was clear that he had cancer, instead of just being sick. He was very clear about the language, ‘Dad has cancer, the cancer’s getting stronger. The medicine didn’t work and when the cancer’s too strong, Dad is going to die and you won’t see him anymore,’ He would repeat that and Caleb had that clarity of what was going on,” Samantha said.
“After Jerome passed, Caleb knew and he didn’t ask why. He understood the best way he could as a 3-year-old. He has more questions, but he had the foundational principle around Dad having cancer,” she said.
Prior to his last day, Samantha had tunnel vision and was focused on everything that she had to do when her goals shifted.
“On his last day, none of this was in my control anymore. That was when I broke down,” Samantha said.
The importance of health screenings
Getting checked early is doing your due diligence. Samantha said that breast cancer runs in her family and even though genetic tests were done and she didn’t have the genetic carrier, she still got screened when she was 33. Mammograms are recommended when you turn 40.
Samantha’s mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer and they got on it right away with radiation and surgery. She’s now cancer-free.
“I know people who haven’t done it over 50. They’ll say, ‘I’m scared to know or I don’t want to know,’ or ‘It’s going to hurt.’ I don’t agree with those perspectives. It’s such a small price to pay to be able to know now,” Samantha said.
“Even though for Caleb, it wasn’t a genetic situation, the doctor suggested he get screened when he’s a teenager since polyps do run in the family. To me, that’s due diligence with the knowledge we have at this point. Jerome also told his sisters to get checked in their 20s,” Samantha said.
According to the 10th edition of the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-10), if colon cancer runs in your family, you can use Z80.0, which is a billable and specific code that can be used to indicate a diagnosis for reimbursement purposes.
Samantha has gained perspective from the experience.
“I would call it moving forward. When it’s not your choice to lose somebody that you love, that’s never going to go away. It’s always going to be there — that love and foundation that you built will always be there. I see it as my experience, our foundational love, the family that we grew. It’s everything that will grow from that, as I move forward in my life,” she said.
To read more about Jerome’s journey, visit posthope.org/jeromejimenez.
To learn about colon cancer screening, visit cdc.gov/cancer/colorectal/basic_info/screening/index.htm.
Nina can be reached at email@example.com.