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Tough as Iron

As someone who has experienced a lot of cancer in her family, Tracy Simons has always been ultra-vigilant about her health, knowing that the possibility of it impacting her at some point in her lifetime was likely.

“On my mother’s side of the family, we’ve seen brain, pancreatic and uterine,” Tracy said. “But on my father’s side, it’s a mystery.”

When she spoke about her family history of cancer with Deidre Arms, CNP, of the Women’s Comprehensive Health Center in Lancaster, she was intrigued to learn that the office offered genetic testing, which can estimate a patient’s likelihood of developing cancer in their lifetime. The testing, which is done through a simple blood test, searches for specific changes, called mutations, in the patient’s genes, chromosomes or proteins.

While a genetic test cannot confirm whether a patient will develop cancer, it can predict a patient’s risk of a particular disease, as well as uncover genes that may pass an increased cancer risk on to the patient’s children.

Tracy opted to undergo the genetic testing, which revealed that she did in fact have an unidentified mutation on the gene. A colonoscopy and further testing revealed a devastating diagnosis – stage 3 colon cancer.

“Deidre was my saving grace; had the genetic testing not been recommended to me, the cancer likely wouldn’t have been found until I was 50,” said Tracy, who was 47 when she was diagnosed and has been in remission since January. “By then, I might have had a much different outcome.”

Laurianne Scott, D.O., of the Women’s Comprehensive Health Center, said genetic testing is considered when reviewing a patient’s family and health history. Colon, pancreatic, breast and uterine cancer, as well as malignant melanoma, are all types of cancers that can be genetic. If the patient is under the age of 50 and has a family history of those types of cancers, a personal history of cancer or an unknown family history, genetic testing is considered.

“Knowing family history is important because it helps your healthcare provider individualize your care based on certain diseases that have a genetic predisposition,” Dr. Scott said. “In Tracy’s case, her compliance and receptiveness to have genetic testing done as well as her willingness to follow recommendations based on her genetic test results led to an early diagnosis of her disease.”

Early cases of colon cancer typically begin as noncancerous polyps that don’t cause symptoms, but can be detected through a colonoscopy. When symptoms do occur, they vary depending on the size and location of the cancer. Some commonly experienced symptoms include changes in bowel habits and stool consistency, blood in the stool and abdominal discomfort.

Tracy, whose cancer was located in the cecum, or beginning of the large intestine, said she had been experiencing fatigue and pain in her right side prior to her cancer diagnosis, but she had attributed it to a recent diagnosis of diverticulitis.

“I didn’t have any visible bleeding or changes in bowel habits, which are typically the most common warning signs of colon cancer,” Tracy said.

Tracy opted to do her treatment at Fairfield Medical Center so she could be close to home. She underwent a colectomy, in which a third of her colon was removed. Through it all, she remained strong with the help of her cancer care team.

“That was a hard time for me; if there is a side effect to anything – surgery, medication, an illness, I get it,” said Tracy, who had to take leave from her job while undergoing chemotherapy. “Luckily the care I received at Fairfield Medical Center was wonderful.”

Tracy was impressed by the attention she received in the hospital, both after her surgery and throughout her chemotherapy. She said all of the nurses were attentive and her oncologist, Kanjawalit Singh, M.D. did a great job of explaining the next steps of her treatment, even drawing pictures to help her understand.

“I have had surgeries at other hospitals and FMC is by far the best,” Tracy said. “In the past, I’ve found that when you get to your room, the care goes down because of understaffing, but that wasn’t the case here. The pre-op was great, the doctors were very nice and the care was exceptional.”

Tracy said one of the hardest parts of her cancer journey was being away from her job. Tracy is a program specialist for AEP’s ReCreation Land Park, a 52,920-acre outdoor recreation area in McConnelsville built on land once strip mined for coal. She also volunteers her time taking care of wildlife at Hocking College. She has since returned to work and, in that time, has taken on a new role in her personal life – educating others about the importance of knowing their family history and the warning signs of colon cancer.

“My advice is to advocate for yourself and find a doctor who listens to you,” Tracy said. “All of my doctors listened to me and were on top of it every step of the way.”

To learn more about genetic testing or the Women’s Comprehensive Health Center, contact Dr. Scott’s office at 740-689-2079.

Take Note

Family history is significant when it comes to determining your risk for developing colorectal cancer in your lifetime and, as with any cancer, early detection is the key. “Colon cancer is easily detected, and even preventable, with the appropriate screening measures,” said Margaret Sawyer, M.D., of General Surgical Associates. “Colonoscopy, the main screening tool, is usually not difficult and there are much easier prep options available today. Unfortunately even without a family history, we are all at risk of developing colon cancer, even at a younger age. Because of this, the age to begin colon cancer screening has been lowered to 45. Be sure to discuss the new screening guidelines with your doctor and get screened. “