Getting a Colonoscopy to Diagnose Colon Cancer
- A Wisconsin woman promised her friend dying from stage 4 colon cancer that she would get a colonoscopy at age 50. And that promise saved Kari McMannes’ life.
- At age 50, Kari was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer. “I had no symptoms. So, here I am fighting the same battle my best friend fought,” she said. “I think it saved my life.”
- When you have a colonoscopy for colon cancer screening, the gastroenterologist performing the procedure is looking at the inside of your colon to detect polyps.
Cathy Jacobson, Kari’s best friend of 25 years, was diagnosed with advanced-stage, also called stage 4 or metastatic, colon cancer at just 45 years old.Read More
Cathy died two years later after a hard-fought battle with colon cancer.
But, before Cathy’s untimely death, her best friend Kari promised that she and some of their other friends would get colonoscopies when they turned 50. And that promise saved Kari’s life.
“Just shy of 51 and (I) was diagnosed with stage three (colon cancer),” Kari said. “I had no symptoms. So, here I am fighting the same battle my best friend fought.”
“I think it saved my life,” she added. “I know it did. That was unbelievable.”
After undergoing treatment once she was diagnosed in late 2020, Kari is now cancer-free! While the promise she made to her best friend she said saved her life, she also believes her diagnosis led her on a new advocacy path, helping to raise awareness for colon cancer.
“This is my calling to get the word out and people need to be their own advocates,” she said. “If something’s not right, take charge. Ask your doctors.”
Getting a Colonoscopy
When you have a colonoscopy for colon cancer screening, the gastroenterologist performing the procedure is looking at the inside of your colon to detect polyps.
Polyps are small growths in the colon that aren’t yet cancerous, but have the potential to develop into cancer. A polyp that’s found during a colonoscopy is removed, which can actually prevent the development of cancer. A pathologist determines if it is a benign polyp or if it is colon cancer. Most polyps (about 95%) that are removed are precancerous, meaning that they have not yet progressed to cancer.
Many people hold off on getting a colonoscopy because of the perceived discomfort or embarrassment of the situation. That’s why it is helpful to know that it is a painless procedure.
“When we see a polyp, we actually physically take the polyp out through the colonoscope,” Dr. Zuri Murrell, a colorectal surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, previously told SurvivorNet. “That means we basically put a wire through with a little bit of a little flange at the end, and we pull the polyp out. Now, note there is no pain with that. Inside the colon, there are no pain fibers. So there’s no pain.”
When they take the polyp out, they send it to a lab.
“A pathologist basically cuts up the little polyp and looks under a microscope,” Dr. Murrell explained. “And underneath the microscope, they can decide whether or not it is early cancer or whether it is just a precancerous polyp.”
“But it would have been a cancer ultimately if you just let it grow and grow and grow,” he continued. “Well, guess what? Now that it’s out of your body, there is no more risk for that polyp to become a cancer.”
Understanding Colon Cancer
Colorectal cancer affects your large intestine (colon) or the end of your intestine (rectum).
The cancer starts when abnormal lumps called polyps grow in the colon or rectum. If you don’t have these polyps removed, they can sometimes turn into cancer. It takes up to 10 years for a colon polyp to become full-blown cancer, so if you get the recommended screenings, then your doctor will have time to remove any polyps that form before they can cause problems.
SurvivorNet experts recommend that people at average risk of colon cancer start regular screening at age 45.
Stages one through three colon cancers are cancers that haven’t spread far from the colon. Because of this, there’s the potential for a cure with surgical resection.
However, advanced stages of colon cancer (stage 4 — what Cathy was diagnosed with and died from) aren’t always curable. But because there are so many treatment options available, the disease can often be managed.
There have been major advancements in colon cancer treatment in recent years. And we’ve collaborated with specialists around the country to get the key information about these new treatment options, and to explain when they can be used.
Treating Stage 4 Colon Cancer
Stage 4 colon cancer, or metastatic colon cancer, is when the tumor has spread outside the colon. This is often managed with chemotherapy alone or, in select cases, a combination of chemotherapy and surgery depending on the patient, tumor properties and where the metastases are located.
In some cases, it is not possible to surgically remove all of these tumors. In that case, the primary goal of treatment is to manage the cancer or, in other words, to prevent the cancer from growing, spreading and causing symptoms.
A combination of patient factors and tumor properties determine which chemotherapy will be used to treat metastatic colon cancer.
In terms of patient factors, the doctor will take into consideration things like patient age and how well the patient would be able to tolerate the side effects of chemotherapy. Regarding the specifics of the tumor, the genetic mutations (for example, BRAF and KRAS are two genes that are looked at when evaluating colon cancers) and location of the primary colon tumor are taken into consideration.
All of these things are evaluated together, and ultimately used to determine which chemotherapy regimen will be recommended.
Contributing: SurvivorNet staff reports