March is colon cancer awareness month and it's time to ask your doctor if you should be screened.
Doctors are seeing a disturbing new trend: a growing number of younger people being diagnosed with colon cancer.
A local woman who did what too many busy people do - ignored her symptoms until it was nearly too late.
"I was really busy, working a lot, didn't have time to take off to go to the doctor until the pain got so bad that I did," said Gayla Ruff. Her schedule was jam-packed with work at another and raising her two children when the pain in her abdomen started.
"Well the doctor even said, 'I don't think it's cancer.' And I thought, 'Of course it's not cancer! I'm too young," she added.
Her family doctor diagnosed her with one illness and prescribed pain medication. When that didn't help, another diagnosis was offered. By then, Gayla had started a new job in radiology at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Tulsa. She decided to see a specialist there.
"He said, 'For your age and the pain you're experiencing it's not normal. We're going to get to the bottom of this," Gayla said.
Tests he prescribed turned up a suspicious mass and she underwent surgery about a week later. The surgical team operated on her for more than eleven hours. When she woke up from anesthesia, the surgeon told her she had colon cancer. That alarming diagnosis came with the warning he did not think she would have lasted two more weeks with the size of the mass and the fact the cancer had spread to some of her lymph nodes.
Gayla was only 36 and had no immediate family history.
Dr. Scott Hendrickson, a gastroenterologist at CTCA Tulsa said no one knows why more young people are getting colon cancer. So, it is more critical to pay attention to your body.
"Younger people often feel healthy, invincible. These things don't happen to them. So, they often ignore the symptoms when they happen when there are often warning signs," Dr. Scott Hendrickson said.
No matter what your age, watch for the ABC's of colon cancer:
BLOOD IN THE STOOL
CHANGE IN BOWEL HABITS.
AND UNEXPLAINED WEIGHT LOSS.
"Unfortunately, patients present with the story that their diet is finally working," Dr. Henrickson stated. "And that's not usually what you want to hear. Unexplained weight loss doesn't usually happen with us."
On average, doctors recommend undergoing a baseline colonoscopy at age 50. Due to a higher incidence of colon cancer, African Americans should begin the tests at age 45. However, if there is a family history, some may need to begin at age 40 - or even earlier. Dr. Hendrickson says the starting age is ten years less than the age of diagnosis for a close family member.
"So, if your father was diagnosed with colon cancer at 40 - the recommendation would be for you to start at 30."
While a colonoscopy and the prep required for it often deter people, Dr. Hendrickson said don't let that stop you from scheduling the life-saving test. Doctors may order a CT scan or even one of the new tests that check for DNA in the stool. Currently under study, and probably years from being available, is a blood test that may someday eliminate the need for the prep and colonoscopy. Until then, Dr. Hendrickson advises people to watch for symptoms and do not hesitate to call your doctor if anything seems wrong. Since 140,000 Americans will be diagnosed with colon cancer this year, according to the American Cancer Society, he offered this checklist of things to do to help prevent colon cancer:
MAINTAIN HEALTHY WEIGHT
LIMIT HEAVY ALCOHOL USE
Eat 6-8 SERVINGS OF FRUITS & VEGGIES A DAY
ELIMINATE PROCESSED FOODS
Dr. Hendrickson says a processed food is anything cured, processed and contains additives. He warns if it is packaged in a box and carries a long expiration date consider it a processed food.
After surgery and chemotherapy, Gayla believes she is now a better CT tech and caregiver to her patients.
"I had one patient who laid on the table and said, 'You just don't know how this feel.' And I said, 'No, I know exactly how this feels because I’ve laid on this table myself.'"
She loves to share that she's had seven years of good health. Her name is even featured on the survivor's tree at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Tulsa. It's a tree on the wall filled with leaves carrying the names of those who have survived their cancer for five years or longer.
Gayla is thrilled that her cancer was caught in time though she recommends no one ignore symptoms the way she did.
"Catching it in time is better than too late," she said. "But catching it early is the best solution for everyone."
She is especially grateful for the job opening that led her to CTCA and is certain if she had not taken the position, she would not be alive today.