Expert Medical Care Beats the Odds with Colon Cancer

The odds were not in Brian Thompson’s favor when he was diagnosed with late-stage colon cancer. By the time his doctor found it, his golf ball-sized tumor had already spread from his colon to involve his bladder and liver.

“My doctor sat me down and said, ‘Look, man, it’s serious,’ Brian said. Five-year survival rates for patients in his situation are less than 15 percent. At age 40 — a decade before most think about having the first routine colonoscopy — Brian and his wife, Rebecca, were explaining his cancer diagnosis to their two daughters and young son.

Brian Thompson at River Bluff High School in Lexington

“I’m kind of a big baby. I didn’t want to see the scans, and I didn’t want to know the details. I’m not as good at the details as my wife is — she was amazing through it all. But I was thinking, maybe if I close my eyes, it’ll all just go away.”

Brian realized he couldn’t insulate his family from the harsh reality to come. “There’s the fear of what’s coming and how bad it’s going to be from a treatment standpoint, but thinking about them — that’s what scared me to death. On the flip side, it was probably because of them that I fought so hard.”

“I’m not afraid of dying — I know where my eternity lies. But I’m afraid of not being there with my family. The days when I was chemo’d up, I’d hear my family carrying on, life-as-normal, outside my bedroom — that was hard. Life was going on, and I wasn’t in it.”

But the River Bluff High School science teacher and assistant football coach beat the odds with the help of his family, school and church community — and an expertly coordinated approach to his medical care.

Dr. Steven Madden of Lexington Oncology at Lexington Medical Center

“Lexington Medical Center’s affiliation with Duke Health gives its oncologists fast access to the latest research, clinical trials and specialists at Duke,” said Steve A. Madden, MD, oncologist at Lexington Oncology, a Lexington Medical Center physician practice.

“Duke physicians have been readily available to us via telephone or email to discuss cases before we send patients to them for evaluation, and they’re very amenable to giving our patients a quick appointment there,” Dr. Madden said.

The formal affiliation is important. Cancer is a complex disease. When patients who live here travel elsewhere for care and don’t have a local doctor familiar with the case, problems can quickly escalate. “The ideal is to have a provider here, and get tertiary care when needed at a comprehensive cancer center like Duke.”

In Brian’s case, several months of chemotherapy treatment to reduce the size of the tumor began right away under Dr. Madden’s care. Brian asked his doctor to work with Duke on his case.

“In our situation, we would be fools not to try to take advantage of every opportunity we could,” he said. “Dr. Madden was very supportive of it.”

Dr. Niharika Mettu, a medical oncologist at Duke, evaluated Brian and agreed with Dr. Madden’s chemotherapy approach. His surgery and imaging scans to evaluate his progress were done at Duke. For the first surgery, a specialist in colon cancer removed part of the colon.

Then a different surgeon specializing in the bladder took over to remove the cancer there. Two months later, a third specialist removed a section of Brian’s liver. After surgery was complete, Dr. Madden oversaw three more months of chemotherapy at Lexington Medical Cancer Center in West Columbia.

“They are very timely at Duke about communicating results to us,” Dr. Madden said. After the last round of chemotherapy, Brian returned to Duke for scans to evaluate his progress.

“I had his results very soon after, and they related to me he was in remission.” The cancer was gone.

That welcome news came just before last Christmas — nearly a year to the date after diagnosis.

“How did I celebrate? I breathed,” Brian said. “It was a ‘normal’ Christmas, a ‘normal’ anniversary, a ‘normal’ time with my family. We feel so blessed. It seemed like every step of the way things have been moving in the right direction.”

Get a Colonoscopy
Brian Thompson had no family history of cancer, but only about 20 percent of colon cancer patients do. He had symptoms for several months leading up to his diagnosis, but signs of colon cancer can mimic other common problems, such as an infection, hemorrhoids or irritable bowel syndrome.

It’s important to know the symptoms of colon cancer and to seek care, according to Dr. Madden.

“Any rectal bleeding or rectal pain that persists more than a few weeks should be evaluated. It doesn’t matter how old you are,” he said. “Yes, it could just be something like hemorrhoidal bleeding, but anything that lasts more than a few weeks should be evaluated by your primary care physician.”

Brian Thompson shares his own advice: “I tell people, ‘Go get your colonoscopy. Don’t wait. It’s a lot scarier to be diagnosed with colon cancer than it is to just get checked out.”

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, the independent panel of national experts that examines evidence about preventive health services, recommends screening for colorectal cancer starting at age 50 and continuing until age 75.

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