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Colon Cancer Survival Stories

Barnes-Jewish West County performs colonoscopies to detect and diagnose colon cancer. If colon cancer is detected in the early stages, chances of surviving are greatly increased.

Learn about colonoscopy screenings and how they saved the lives of the following patients.

Don’t Ignore the Signs or Your Family History When it Comes to Colorectal Cancer

When St. Louis teacher Joni James had her first colonoscopy at age 55, it wasn’t the procedure that made her nervous, it was finding out the results.

“I’m very intuitive about my body, and I knew that something was wrong,” recalls James, a mother of two. “When they came back after the colonoscopy, they told me I had cancer in the lower part of my colon. I wasn’t really surprised because my father had died of colon cancer.” Before the colonoscopy, she had complained of pelvic pain to her gynecologist, who ordered an ultrasound.

James says she didn’t have any other signs like bleeding or changes in her bowel habits. “They didn’t find anything after the ultrasound, and I wasn’t satisfied with that, so I went to Barnes-Jewish Hospital,” James says, where she saw another physician who recommended the colonoscopy. “After the colonoscopy, I was told I would need surgery, and I prayed to God that I would be alright because so many people depend on me.”

James was referred to Elisa Birnbaum, MD, a Washington University colon and rectal surgeon at Barnes-

Jewish West County Hospital. Dr. Birnbaum performed a laparoscopic colectomy last year to remove part of James’ colon.

“I had my surgery on a Thursday and came home on a Sunday. I was very confident in Dr. Birnbaum, and I loved the hospital because it’s small, peaceful and quiet,” James says. “After my surgery, they said everything went well, it hadn’t spread to my lymph nodes and I never had to have chemotherapy or radiation.

I received wonderful care, and I was really grateful and thankful. Part of my colon is gone, but I eat healthier and I feel good.”

Since her cancer was detected at an early stage, laparoscopic surgery was the right option for James, Dr. Birnbaum says. James will have follow-ups with blood tests every three months for two years and every six months for five additional years, as well as regular colonoscopies.

 “We have tremendous experience here at Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital treating routine colon cancers laparoscopically,” Dr. Birnbaum says.“I think the scariest part for patients diagnosed with colorectal cancer is the unknown.

Once they have entered the process, we try to be very sensitive to people’s anxieties. We work in a multi-disciplinary approach with fellow surgeons, gastroenterologists, radiation oncologists, medical oncologists, nurses and other clinicians who are all working together for the patient.”

Dr. Birnbaum says she has seen a change over the years in people talking about colorectal cancer more and recognizing the need for screening. Current recommendations are for people with no family history to begin screening at age 50.

If there is a family history, the recommendation for their relative is to undergo their first screening colonoscopy by age 40, or 10 years younger than the age their family member was first diagnosed, whichever is earlier, adds Paul Wise, MD, Washington University colon and rectal surgeon at Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital and the director of the Washington University Inherited Colorectal Cancer and Polyposis Registry.

A strong family history of two or more relatives with colorectal cancer, as well as some other cancers, may require screening to start even earlier in life. Dr. Wise, who specializes in inherited and hereditary colorectal cancer and hereditary colorectal cancer syndromes, urges patients who have a strong history in their families to discuss with their physicians whether they need to start screening at an earlier age or even consider genetic testing for a syndrome. He says the two most common inherited colorectal cancers syndromes are Lynch syndrome, or hereditary non-polyposis colon cancer (HNPCC), and familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP).

“Patients with FAP have an essentially 100 percent risk of developing colorectal cancer and are screened very early, typically starting around puberty,” he says. “Those with Lynch syndrome also have a high risk of developing colorectal cancer as well as other types of cancers. That is why it’s very important to know your family history, if possible, so that you can be screened at an earlier age if needed.

Patients with these syndromes or a strong family history of cancer may be advised to undergo different operations or treatments than those with a more ‘routine’ colorectal cancer, so it’s important to have a surgeon familiar with these conditions, like the colon and rectal surgeons at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital.”

If you'd like to schedule a screening colonoscopy, call Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital at 314.542.9378 or 1.844.542.9378.

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