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Taking on rectal cancer like a cowboy

Posted at 4:42 PM, Aug 28, 2015
and last updated 2015-08-28 19:06:46-04

star-sponsored-nativeThe following article is sponsored by University of Utah Health Care.

By Natalie Dicou

Talking with Eric Beck, you get the sense that not much riles him up. What was his reaction to hearing he had rectal cancer?

“I guess I was prepared for it,” the Menan, Idaho farmer replied like a stoic cowboy. “It didn’t really bother me.”

Beck had to have his rectum surgically removed but didn’t need chemotherapy or radiation treatment because a colonoscopy caught his cancer early.

“I’d heard you’re supposed to have your first colonoscopy at 50, so I was going to get one,” Beck said. “Next thing I knew, I was 54.”

It’s not lost on Beck just how dangerous the situation could’ve become if he would’ve postponed the procedure a few more years.

“Had it gone through all the linings of the rectum and got into my lymph nodes and my liver and what have you, I may have lived a couple years, but that probably would’ve been it,” he said.

Colorectal cancer — encompassing both colon and rectal cancer — is the third most common cause of cancer, second only to lung and prostrate in men, and lung and breast in women. It’s also the second most common cause of cancer death.

“Most of the time, colon cancer has no presenting symptoms,” said Bartley Pickron, M.D., a colon and rectal surgeon at University of Utah Health Care. “When it’s found on colonoscopy and is asymptomatic, most of the time it’s very easily treated.”

Colorectal cancer usually starts with a polyp, which is simply a tiny mass of tissue that grows and grows, and at some point, turns into cancer, Pickron explained. Genetics along with environmental conditions and diet are risk factors for the disease.

The good news is colorectal cancer can often be dealt with using laparoscopic surgery.

“Everybody knows you can get your gall bladder taken out laparoscopically, with just 3-4 little incisions,” said Pickron. “We can basically do the same thing for colon cancer.”

Instead of a week-long hospital stay, an 8-inch incision and 6-8 weeks of recovery — patients who go the laparoscopic route need only a few days in the hospital, 3-4 small incisions and a 3-4-week recovery before returning to work.

“It’s a big advantage,” said Pickron, who went through extensive training to master the latest laparoscopic techniques.

Currently, only 30-35% of colorectal cancer patients receive laparoscopic surgery, and Pickron hopes more people become aware of this far less invasive option.

Another bright spot in the fight against colorectal cancer is that the disease is uniquely screenable. Unlike mammograms and prostate tests, which look for early cancers, colonoscopies find and eliminate suspicious lesions before they ever even become cancer, Pickron said.

Still, many people dread getting a colonoscopy because the idea of it sounds uncomfortable. Nobody wants to go on clear liquids the day before and ingest a laxative drink that creates, as Pickron put it, “a big tidal wave in the colon that flushes everything out.”

But take it from a cowboy: A colonoscopy is no big deal.

“Everybody says how yucky that drink is and how terrible the night before is, and none of that is even close to true,” Beck said. “There’s nothing to it — not the preparation or the colonoscopy itself. If you’re holding off because of that, you’re definitely holding off for the wrong reasons.”

During a colonoscopy, a patient is sedated, given an IV, and the whole procedure takes 20-30 minutes.

“There’s a long, flexible scope — we usually describe it as having a light and a camera on the end of it — that goes in the rectum all the way around the colon, looking for anything out of the ordinary,” Pickron said. “Most little polyps can be removed right then and there. There’s very little recovery. You wake up, go home, and the following day, you’re fine and can do whatever you want to.”

For most people, a colonoscopy once every 10 years, starting at age 50, is sufficient to fend off cancer. But if colorectal cancer runs in the family or if you’ve got symptoms such as bleeding or change in bowel habits, it’s best to start early.

Knowing his dad’s history, that’s exactly what Beck’s son Cortney did.

“He was only 36 years old, and they found a polyp in him,” Beck said. “It was early enough that it was OK. But if he would’ve waited til his 50s, he might not have made it that long.”

Because of his body’s penchant for polyps, Beck will need a colonoscopy every three years for the rest of his life. He’s had three since his recovery from cancer. Twice, new polyps needed to be removed.

“You shouldn’t stop just because you think you’ve been taken care of,” said Beck, who traveled from Idaho to Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah every three months for five years for checkups.

How’s he doing these days?

“Really good,” he said. “It’s like nothin’ happened.”

Call 801-213-9797 to schedule a colonoscopy. To learn more about your colorectal cancer options, call 801-585-1618.