PUBLISHED: 4:34 PM on Wednesday, March 21, 2007
Colon cancer survivor warns about preventable disease
Randy Henderson doesn't mind having a colonoscopy. And he's on a mission to convince others age 50 and older to do it.

"If they don't want to put their family through what my family's gone through and they don't want to be cut on four or five times; if they don't want to lose 60 pounds; if they don't want to be out thousands of dollars - then they'll go get a scope," he said.

Henderson was diagnosed with stage-four colon cancer in September 1997. He and his wife, Nancy, have spent years paying hospital bills and rebuilding their lives after Randy's bout with the preventable disease.

The summer before Randy's diagnosis, he was experiencing back pain and had some bleeding but put off seeing his family doctor.

"I didn't have time," he said.

Nancy urged him to make an appointment sooner.

A visit to his family doctor led Randy to a surgeon and eventually to Dr. William Shaver for a colonoscopy, an outpatient procedure that allows a physician to look at the interior lining of the large intestine.

During the colonoscopy, Shaver discovered a tumor larger than a baseball in Randy's colon.

Nancy couldn't believe what she was hearing.

"When they first tell you, you're in shock," she said. "That's something that happens to someone else."

Randy said, "I could do anything, and then all the sudden, everybody's having to do stuff for me. And that didn't go over very well, and it went on for a long time."

Now, at the age of 57, Randy is healthy and has made it a priority to get regular colon cancer screenings.

Colon cancer will happen to 150,000 people this year, Shaver said. And 56,000 of those diagnosed with it will die.

Dr. Davor Vugrin, a cancer specialist, intends to decrease the number of people who will die from colon cancer by educating people about the disease and the importance of early detection.

"We are mobilizing heaven and hell and everything in between on this thing," Vugrin said. "Randy Henderson is just one of many people experiencing this disease."

The goal of the task force is to reduce the colon cancer death rate by 50 percent in 2007 and by 90 percent by 2011.

Colon cancer is the only cancer that can be stopped before it starts, Vugrin said.

"More than 90 percent can be prevented from occurring, and death can be avoided with new technologies if it is used systematically in the population at risk," he said.

Randy was diagnosed when he was 47 years old, but people most often at risk for colon cancer are people 50 or older and people who have a family history of the disease.

Inactivity and a diet high in red meat and fat also contribute to a person's risk, Vugrin said.

The key to preventing colon cancer is to get screened at the age of 50, or sooner if symptoms including persistent abdominal pain, bowel changes and rectal bleeding are present.

The best colon cancer prevention tool is a colonoscopy, Shaver said. A colonoscope is a flexible viewing instrument that is used to detect abnormalities such as polyps and tumors in the colon and rectum. A small video camera is attached to the end of the scope and produces videos and photos.

Polyps are small growths that are almost always the precursor to colon cancer, Shaver said. They can be removed easily and safely by using a snare or forceps inserted through a colonoscope during a colonoscopy.

"The polyps are removed at the time we're in there, and that's what greatly decreases the chance you'll ever get cancer," Shaver said.

A colonoscopy typically takes 15 to 20 minutes.

Although patients are sedated during the procedure and most of the time they don't even realize what's happening, many people are hesitant to schedule an appointment.

"In everybody's mind you're kind of worried or scared of what you might have, and so people don't come in because they don't want to find out they do have it," Shaver said.

Another reason people are shy about getting a colonoscopy is because of the cleaning out that is required before the procedure.

Patients used to be required to drink a gallon of salty-tasting laxative the night before a colonoscopy, which was difficult and unpleasant, Shaver said. Now, patients can chose between a pill or three ounces of a laxative to flush their systems.

Randy agreed that cleaning out is the most difficult part of a colonoscopy. The exam, he said, is a breeze.

"It's a lot easier than going to the dentist," he said.

"I never feel anything. Absolutely nothing."

Insurance will cover a colonoscopy if symptoms are present, Shaver said. Depending on who does it and where it is done, a colonoscopy can cost between $1,300 and $5,500.

Randy and Nancy said the price of a colonoscopy is peanuts compared to watching a loved one battle cancer or having to worry about how to pay off stacks of hospital bills.

"When a parent is diagnosed with cancer, the whole family is diagnosed with cancer because it changes so much," Randy said.

"If the people won't do it for themselves, think about doing it for their husband, wife and kids."