Protecting Colon Health: Jo Ann’s Journey
Jo Ann Boyle’s family had experienced health scares before. As wife, mother, and grandmother, Jo Ann had stood faithfully and supportively by her family as her husband Garth successfully beat cancer and her son Brian emerged triumphantly from rehabilitation following a serious accident.
Happily, Jo Ann herself had no apparent medical issues—until her routine physical in 2018, when her family doctor advised her to complete a colon screening. In her late 50s at the time, Jo Ann had never been screened. And she was well overdue according to 2018 guidelines that recommend patients get screened at age 45 instead of 50.
Jo Ann had no symptoms and none of the typical risk factors for colorectal cancer—a family history of colon cancer, a previous diagnosis of colon cancer or precancerous polyps, or the presence of any type of colorectal disease. So, she was a good candidate for an at-home colon-screening test.
Her doctor prescribed Cologuard®, an FDA-approved test that examines a person’s stool sample for abnormal DNA or traces of blood that may warn of precancerous polyps or colon cancer. The Cologuard test provides the patient with the tools to easily collect and ship a viable stool sample to a testing center. Jo Ann submitted her stool sample and awaited her test results.
Why Testing Is Critical
Those results came in a troubling phone call from her doctor. With concern in his voice, he informed Jo Ann that her at-home test was pointing to a potential abnormality in her colon. He recommended that she make plans immediately for a colonoscopy.
A possible abnormality certainly calls for attention: In the U.S., colorectal cancer is the second most common cause of cancer deaths among men and women and is expected to take over 50,000 lives this year.
Fortunately, the number of patients diagnosed with this cancer has declined since the 1980s, mainly thanks to a strong focus on early screenings, as well as patients’ greater awareness of lifestyle factors that may increase their risk. Early detection is critical for good long-term outcomes.
At-home testing can be useful to flag the presence of polyps or suspicious symptoms within the colon. But colon cancer screening via a colonoscopy, performed onsite at a medical facility, is regarded as the gold standard, not just for locating and identifying growths but also for removing them when found.
Jo Ann’s Journey
Jo Ann, however, dreaded the thought of a colonoscopy. She feared the procedure itself, as well as a possible diagnosis of cancer.
Although she realized the situation called for speedy attention, she delayed scheduling her colonoscopy. In fact, she put it off for over a year. She focused her energies instead on continued nurturing of her family, especially the granddaughter and brand-new grandson of whom she was so proud.
But that didn’t mean that Jo Ann didn’t worry regularly about her Cologuard result. As she puts it, “Always, in the back of my head, I was thinking, ‘I’ve got to get this done. I’ve got to get this checked out.’”
As several months passed and Jo Ann persisted in delaying her colonoscopy, a new concern emerged for everyone: the novel coronavirus began to spread across the U.S. Although hospitals immediately implemented safe, effective COVID-19 protocols, in Jo Ann’s mind, the virus represented another good reason not to enter a hospital for a procedure.
At that point, Jo Ann began noticing some worrisome new symptoms. She felt an unfamiliar achy tenderness in her side when she picked up her grandkids. And she noticed that her stools were becoming long and skinny, an indicator of possible colon issues. (Other possible symptoms of colon issues are rectal bleeding, stools that may be darkened by the presence of blood, constipation or diarrhea lasting more than a few days, and fatigue brought on by iron-deficiency anemia.)
“Suddenly, one day I read an article in a MedStar Health publication about how important colonoscopy is,” she comments. “And I noticed that it mentioned several of the symptoms I’d been having! That really got my attention.”
Jo Ann decided it was time at last to reach out to MedStar Washington Hospital Center and schedule that crucial colonoscopy.
“For your peace of mind and your family’s—and to protect your health—don’t delay care. If your doctor advises it, get the colonoscopy!” Read Jo Ann’s story. https://bit.ly/3takyaX via @MedStarWHC
Jo Ann’s Procedure
“I was quite afraid to start the process,” said Jo Ann. “The prospect of possible cancer was terrifying. But I was at the point where it was better to get the information I needed and move ahead than to be paralyzed by anxiety.”
Jo Ann’s first appointment was a telehealth visit with nurse practitioner Andrea Greetham. After Andrea assured Jo Ann that it’s common for some patients to be apprehensive about their colonoscopy, she walked her through colonoscopy prep as well as the colonoscopy procedure itself, and answered her questions. The two set a date for Jo Ann’s colonoscopy and discussed her check-in procedure.
“Right away, I could feel my fear starting to fade,” said Jo Ann. “I even felt relaxed enough to ask if I could wear makeup during my procedure. Andrea admitted that she’d never been asked that one before! We had a good laugh.”
On the day of her colonoscopy, due to COVID-19 protocols, Jo Ann was required to enter the hospital alone—at a time, of course, when she most wanted family members with her. “I was very nervous,” she acknowledges. “But I was immediately met by my Hospital Center team. They brought me in, got me comfortable, and prepped me for my procedure. They explained each step they were taking” she notes, “to help manage any anxiety I had and help me feel ready for my procedure. Even surrounded by staff members who were masked and fully outfitted for COVID-19 safety, I felt calm and cared for.”
Just before she was anesthetized, Jo Ann still fondly recalls a team member telling her, “I just want to let you know, you remind me of my mama. And I love my mama. I’m going to treat you the way I’d want her to be treated, ok?”
Jo Ann’s colonoscopy, performed by colon and rectal surgeon Dr. Brian Bello, took just 40 minutes. During the procedure, a flexible, lighted tool called a colonoscope is used within the colon to view its entire length and allow the surgeon to spot, identify, and remove any precancerous polyps or malignant growths.
In Jo Ann’s case, Dr. Bello discovered and removed a pair of colon polyps to be biopsied. Jo Ann was released from the hospital and reunited with her family shortly after.
A few days later, Dr. Bello contacted JoAnn with the reassuring result of her biopsy. After more than a year of stress and uncertainty, her polyps were found to be benign!
Don’t Wait, Take Action
Jo Ann Boyle has some advice for anyone who is overdue for their colonoscopy or feeling discomfort and noticing other symptoms:
“I wish I hadn’t waited so long to reach out to speak to a doctor and schedule my procedure. For your peace of mind and your family’s—and to protect your health—please don’t delay care. See your doctor and get your colonoscopy!”
Remember: Early detection of precancerous growths helps prevent the spread of potentially deadly cancer. A colonoscopy is an easy, outpatient procedure that can identify and remove those growths before they become cancerous.
If you’re over 45 and have not yet scheduled yourself for a baseline colonoscopy, ask yourself: “What am I waiting for?”