Jill Schwertner doesn’t fit the profile of the average colon cancer patient. The 42-year-old resident of The Woodlands is healthy, doesn’t smoke, eats healthfully and doesn’t have a family history of colon cancer.
Yet the “average” colon cancer patient profile is changing. While the overall death rate from colorectal cancer has dropped—likely due to increased screening and improved cancer treatments—deaths from colorectal cancer among people younger than 55 are on the rise. Given this alarming trend, the American Cancer Society recently lowered its recommended starting age for regular screening for colorectal cancer from age 50 to age 45 — and younger if there’s a family history of colon polyps or colon cancer.*
While Schwertner experienced symptoms, she was too busy taking care of her family to heed them. “I was spending more time in the bathroom,” she says. “And I noticed blood in my stool, which should have been a huge red flag. I felt cramping pain in my abdomen, but I thought it was probably just female related. I was busy, and it wasn’t something I wanted to share with a doctor, or even my husband.”
At her husband’s urging, she finally made an appointment with a family care doctor, who listened to her symptoms and suspected it might be hemorrhoids. Nonetheless, she referred Schwertner to affiliated gastroenterologist Anna Gonzales, MD, for a colonoscopy.
As Schwertner awoke from the colonoscopy procedure, the nurse explained that there was an area of concern in her colon. A sample was being sent to a pathology laboratory to be biopsied. “Even at this point, I wasn’t concerned at all,” says Schwertner. “In fact, I was annoyed at my husband for making me do it.” Four days later, Dr. Gonzales called Schwertner with the news that she had cancer. “I explained to Jill that I thought we were catching the cancer early,” says Dr. Gonzales. “I told her I had already put in calls to an oncologist and surgeon and could get her in to see them right away.”
Two days later, Schwertner met with oncologist Gregory Seymour, MD, and the next day met with colon and rectal surgeon Mark Pidala, MD, assistant professor of surgery at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston. All three physicians are affiliated with Memorial Hermann The Woodlands Medical Center.
Schwertner says it was amazing how the three physicians worked together for her. “Dr. Gonzales was fantastic, pulling the team together so quickly. And once I met Drs. Seymour and Pidala, I knew they were all in it with me, to help me come out on the other side. I had an overwhelming sense of calmness that this is where I needed to be.”
Dr. Pidala performed the surgery at Memorial Hermann The Woodlands, removing about 4 inches of diseased colon and 14 lymph nodes. The lymph nodes were biopsied, and all tested negative for cancer. Schwertner’s official diagnosis was stage II colorectal cancer. Given the localized nature of the disease, no further treatment was necessary.
“Everything went perfectly,” says Schwertner. “The hospital was pristine, the nurses fantastic. I felt confident I was in the best hands possible.” “We tend to have a stereotypical view of who we think gets colon cancer,” says Dr. Gonzales. “Jill’s case highlights the importance of being in tune with your body so you can recognize changes and, more important, discuss them with your doctor. I always tell my patients, ‘You don’t have a family history of colon cancer until you have a family history of colon cancer.’ As soon as I diagnosed Jill’s cancer, I knew as a team we would do everything possible to ensure the best result for her. I am so thankful she has had such a fantastic outcome and is paying it forward by getting the word out to others about colon cancer awareness.”
Colon cancer is the third most common type of cancer and the second most common cause of cancer death among adults in the U.S., says Dr. Pidala. But it is preventable and curable if found early enough. “That’s why routine screening is so important,” he says. “And anyone with symptoms, including blood in the stool, a change in bowel movements or unexplained weight loss, should be checked by a specialist. But routine screening is important, because often patients with colon cancer, especially in the early stages, don’t feel any symptoms at all.”
Schwertner she says she feels “beyond blessed” that she had the colonoscopy and is thankful her husband pushed her to go through with it. “Even though it’s not something you want to talk about, you need to,” she says. “You need to take care of yourself. It is important for everyone to pay attention to their body and get screened early.”
To schedule a colonoscopy, visit memorialhermann.org/services/colonoscopy.
*Due to recent changes in screening recommendations, please consult your insurance provider to confirm coverage if you are under age 50.
For more information about Memorial Hermann Cancer Centers, including how to get connected to our support services or an affiliated provider, please call (833) 770-7771 or fill out the form below to be connected to one of our Oncology Nurse Navigators.