Kicking Colon Cancer to the Curb
Aurora Patient Grateful for Team That Guided Him on the Path to Health
Arthur Vanslett has always been a healthy guy. To him, a great late-night snack is green beans. He is an active outdoorsman and stays physically fit. And for years, he'd never needed a prescription for anything. "I'd be surprised if I took more than five ibuprofen a year," he admits. "I just never got sick."
Because of his solid health record, going for a routine colonoscopy at age 50 didn't seem necessary. He also had no risk factors associated with colorectal, or colon cancer and no family history of cancer.
Then in April 2012, at age 56, Arthur noticed some slight changes. "Things weren't flowing as they should," he explains. While there was some discomfort, he wasn't overly concerned.
"Unless there is bleeding, colorectal cancer can be asymptomatic until the tumor is quite large," says James Weese, MD, vice president of Aurora Cancer Services. "If minor symptoms are ignored, or if you are asymptomatic, it can go undiagnosed ... that's why screening is so important."
It was his daughters – Nicole and Ashley (a nurse) – who convinced him to go for his first colonoscopy about five months after he began noticing some issues. He was surprised when he learned that it couldn't be completed due to a blockage. But when he learned the blockage was cancer, his surprise turned to shock.
Arthur was devastated, but quickly focused on the road to recovery. He spoke to his primary care doctor about cancer treatment. His doctor referred him to Dr. James Klas, MD, an Aurora colorectal surgical specialist.
"His words were, 'This is who I would use.' He said if it was his brother or his dad who had cancer, this is the surgeon he would recommend," Arthur notes. Soon after, Arthur became an Aurora patient.
He worked with Dr. Klas to assemble a plan of action. There would be radiation and chemotherapy to shrink the cancer as much as possible prior to surgery. Surgery would be next, and then chemotherapy again to ensure the cancer was completely gone. Dr. Klas brought together a care team that included radiation oncologist Kenneth Bastin, MD, and oncologist/hematologist Laura Pfouts McGartland, MD.
On his first day of radiation, Arthur was battle-ready.
"I went in there and said, 'Let's kick this cancer's butt!'" he recalls with a grin. That first day he met his radiation technologists - his "guardian angels" – who he would see each time he went for treatment at Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center. "My techs were Donna, Kassie, Julie and Keith. They really helped put me in a comfort zone to get through this."
During the treatments, Arthur met other patients undergoing radiation. The group, along with the techs, found strength in each other and bonded over laughs and shared experiences.
"They helped me start each day with a smile," he says of his radiation team. "They set the tone, and it just flowed over into the next stages, with appointments, treatments and doctors."
Guided on a Path to Health
After his radiation treatments were done, Arthur had an eight-week "rest" period before surgery, which allowed the tumor to shrink even more.
During surgery, doctors first removed his rectum, the lower part of the colon. Next, they performed reconstruction, creating a pouch from a part of the upper colon, which would function as a new rectum.
Arthur had a temporary ileostomy, a bag for stool to pass into. The uncomfortable experience was made easier by the caring Aurora Visiting Nurse Association staff. "They were so great – I asked if they could come a few more times," Arthur smiles.
After about eight weeks, Arthur's ileostomy was reversed, allowing him to pass stool normally. He is now in the last stages of recovery, undergoing chemotherapy, or "the insurance policy," as he calls it.
"The surgery was a success. The tests show that everything is gone. But the chemo will kill any random cancer cells that might be hanging around. It's like an insurance policy."
For chemotherapy, Arthur goes in for an IV drip every three weeks, which he follows with a 14-day pill regimen. He has experienced some side effects including lessened strength and endurance. During his last round of chemotherapy, he also developed an extreme sensitivity to cold.
"I can't drink anything unless it's at least lukewarm," he says, explaining that anything colder than room temperature shocks his body. But he tries to put things into perspective. "I think of what my father always said: 'This too shall pass.'"
Though the cancer diagnosis was overwhelming, Arthur says his doctors and staff were great guides. "They talked to me like a normal person. They didn't over-talk me. They were there for support."
He and his wife both expressed appreciation for Carla, an Aurora nurse navigator. Nurse navigators partner with patients through each stage of the cancer journey, providing education and support. "I could call anytime, day, night, after a test or procedure," Arthur says.
Arthur is grateful for his entire care team at Aurora. "Every caregiver was super, friendly – just wonderful to work with. They were very concerned with my well-being and comfort."
"No Reason" To Put It Off
Today, Arthur is in good health and good spirits. He frequently stops by Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center to visit and joke with his "guardian angels" and say hello to his doctors.
Though still a jokester, Arthur is serious about educating people about the importance of colonoscopies and offering support to patients with colon cancer.
To those who are putting off a colonoscopy, Arthur firmly states, "Don't."
"Don't believe the horror stories. People like to make more out of it than it is. I've had three colonoscopies, and I tell people 'I take a little nap, I wake up, and I go home.' And that's the truth. There's nothing more to it."
Dr. Weese echoes this sentiment.
"The risk of missing a colon cancer is so much greater than the reasons people have for putting off the procedure," Dr. Weese says. "The population should start screening at age 50, or earlier if they have a family history of colon cancer, polyps or inflammatory bowel disease."
Colorectal cancer is highly treatable and curable if detected early, making regular screens potentially lifesaving.
To those worried about the cost, Arthur shakes his head. "The cost is far greater to put it off and find something later."
"There is no reason to not have it done," he states. "There is every reason to get it done."
March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. If you are over the age of 50, have a family history of colorectal cancer or a personal history of polyps or inflammatory bowel disease and are due for a colonoscopy, contact Aurora Health Care to schedule what could be a life-saving screening. Visit our cancer services page to find out more about our award-winning programs.