First colonoscopy saves life of one of Intermountain Health's own

Posted at 3:04 PM, Mar 15, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-15 17:30:30-04

SALT LAKE CITY — Three days before last Christmas, Dan Liljenquist got a call from his doctor telling him he had Stage 2 colon cancer.

As the Chief Strategy Officer for Intermountain Health, Liljenquist is responsible for guiding the process of setting and achieving the organization's strategic priorities. In recent years, he's come to the realization that he should be as strategic with his own health as he is in his professional responsibilities.

So in early December, at age 48, Liljenquist had his first-ever colonoscopy.

When he got the call from his doctor, it really got to the former Utah State Senator's attention.

"When you get a diagnosis," he said, "there's this fear. I had a night and a morning with my wife. We didn't tell our children because we wanted to know what the story would be before we told them."

One week after that phone call, Dan had a third of his colon removed by Intermountain LDS Hospital colorectal surgeon, Dr. Tae Kim.

"If he would have waited until he was 50," said Dr. Kim, "that cancer could have spread elsewhere where it would have been incurable."

Until recent years, the American Cancer Society recommended that people start getting screened for colon cancer at age 50. But there has been an uptick in the number of colon cancers being diagnosed in much younger people.

Chadwick Boseman, the actor who portrayed Black Panther in the Marvel movies, died of colon cancer in 2020. He was 43.

The American Cancer Society says colon cancer is the second most common cause of cancer deaths in the United States for men and women combined. The organization estimates that in 2023 alone, 153,000 new cases of colorectal cancer will be diagnosed, and 52,550 people will died from it.

Dr. Kim said, "A colonoscopy is infinitely easier than getting your colon out, which is infinitely easier than getting chemotherapy, which is infinitely easier than having late stage cancer, where I have to give you a (colostomy) bag."

Having this experience with colon cancer, Liljenquist said, "If you want to live a long, healthy life, healthcare ... can really help you do that. But you've got to participate in the process. You've got to lean in."

Liljenquist survived a horrific plane crash in Guatemala in 2008, which killed 11 of the 14 people on board a single engine Cessna flying over the jungle. At the time, he felt he'd been given a new lease on life.

Now, after this close call with colon cancer, he savors every moment even more.

"When you really boil down life," he said, "it's about being there for the special moments with the people you love. And I want to be there for those moments, as many of them as I can."

Colorectal cancer screenings in Utah have been increasing over the last ten years, with 62% of adults ages 50 to 74 having a colonoscopy in 2010. In 2018, that rate had increased to 70%. And while the COVID-19 pandemic saw a decrease in the number of colonoscopies in Utah, that number has bounced back, leaving gastroenterologists quite busy now.

So if it's time to schedule a colonoscopy, March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month, a great time to do it.