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A Message of Warning and Hope About Colorectal Cancer

Cancer is something that can catch a person completely off guard. But, when it comes to colon and colorectal cancer, a colonoscopy can help detect and prevent cancer before it really begins. For one Mercer County resident, a recent experience demonstrates both the risk of waiting and the relief of acting on the opportunity for getting that colonoscopy.

“I would just like to send a message to people,” Fred Stern said, following a successful surgery to remove a cancerous tumor that was discovered in time due to the colonoscopy he got earlier this year. “Regardless of if you’re male or female, if you’re in your 40s, visit with your doctor. Talk about your family history and whether it’s right for you to have a colonoscopy.”

Stern, a Beulah resident, had his first colonoscopy in 2011, which came back completely clear. His next colonoscopy was scheduled for 10 years later, in 2021, but Stern waited, as the immense challenges facing medical providers in the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic made scheduling this more difficult. As it happened, a cancerous tumor began to grow near the junction of Stern’s colon and rectum, unknown to himself by any symptoms or outward signs. Thankfully, Stern, a believer in the value of colonoscopy and advocate for local health care, didn’t delay indefinitely on rescheduling that follow-up.

“On Jan. 25, I came to Sakakawea Medical Center and had the colonoscopy with Dr. Schmit and his team,” Stern said.

Stern expressed trust in Dr. Michael Schmit, a surgeon with SMC who had also done Stern’s original colonoscopy in 2011. Schmit also did the scan this time, but with a different result. “In 2011, Dr. Schmit performed the colonoscopy, and that one was clean,” he said. “He gave me the thumbs up and said, ‘You’re good to go.’ This time, I had come through and was talking with the anesthesiologist when Dr. Schmit came in. I could kind of see the look on his face and I thought, ‘Oops. I don’t think I’m going to get a thumbs up this time.'”

Dr. Schmit informed Stern that there was a mass on his colon that was likely cancerous, and he would need a surgery to have it removed. It took Stern a moment to fully come to terms with the news, but he acted quickly once he had.

“Dr. Schmit said I could do it here, or I could go elsewhere to have the surgery done,” Stern said. “I said I had a lot of faith in him to do this kind of work, and faith in this facility we have here.” Six days after the colonoscopy, on Jan. 31, a surgery was held by Dr. Schmit to remove the tumor. The surgery was successful, with Stern needing to stay in the hospital for four days to recover.

Following the surgery, Stern was sent to see an oncologist in Bismarck to determine what steps would need to be taken next. The initial meeting was held Feb. 14, and at that point the oncologist said the surgery had happened early enough that there appeared to be no spread, and Stern would not need chemotherapy. A follow-up meeting has been scheduled for early May to ensure that no new growth or spread is detected.

Dr. Schmit said it was fortunate that Stern got the colonoscopy, as he had no outward symptoms that would have alerted him that anything was amiss.

However, if Stern had managed to get the colonoscopy done in 2021 when it was initially scheduled, Dr. Schmit said it was likely the tumor wouldn’t have really started to grow yet, and the full surgery Stern needed wouldn’t have been necessary.

“Colon cancer starts as a polyp,” Dr. Schmit said. “If we had detected it sooner, we could have just removed the polyp at that point, and it never would have developed into the tumor.”

Both Schmit and Stern stressed that colonoscopies are the only way to get that early detection. Schmit said there can be symptoms, most notably with things like blood in the stool and anemia, but these often come later, by which stage it is likely cancer has actually begun spreading.

“You’re probably not going to have any notable symptoms until the later stages, so a colonoscopy is the only way to detect if anything is happening,” Dr. Schmit said.

Stern said he knows some people are reluctant about getting their colonoscopies, due to possible complications or discomfort with having to go through the body cleansing process. But he said complications are so rare with the procedure, while the cleansing process takes only a few hours, something far less time-consuming or uncomfortable than chemo.

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and Stern’s story is one example from within our own communities both that colorectal and colon cancers are real threats that could happen to anyone, and also that colonoscopies are a valuable option that can help fight against this particular cancer before it even begins.

It is recommended to get your first colonoscopy at age 45, unless you have a family history where other? ? family members got colon cancer, in which case the first colonoscopy is usually recommended for age 40.

If there are no polyps discovered, a follow-up colonoscopy should be held in 10 years' time, or 5 years with that family history. If polyps are removed, Schmit said a follow-up is recommended in 3 years. Schmit said insurance covers all of the screenings and follow-ups for these colonoscopies. He also said that he has no problem with giving additional screenings if someone is in between their regularly scheduled colonoscopies and wishes to have another done just in case, although that might not be covered by insurance as regular ones are.

Stern said he hopes his story will help others pause, talk with family about potential family history, and speak with their primary doctor or physician to determine if they should get their colonoscopy. “Don’t go looking to have a colonoscopy just cause I had trouble,” he said. “Go visit with your doctor. Look at your risk, look at your family history, and decide if that is right for you.”

Stern said doing a colonoscopy has its uncomfortable side, but it is worth it if it helps detect a polyp that otherwise would have grown into a tumor or into full cancer, and could save you from having to go through the difficult process of chemotherapy and, potentially, of losing your life.

“We have those services right here at the hospital, if you decide to do it,” Stern said. “Meet with your doctor. See what’s right for you. The choice is always gonna be yours.”

(Story and photo courtesy of Daniel Arens, Hazen Star)