Family stresses importance of early cancer screening

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Donna Woodworth of Trout Creek was 25 years old when her mother, who had battled with cancer all her life, pushed her to get tested for the disease — a process that cued the start of a 30-year grapple to stay ahead of the cancer curve by way of consistent testing.

“My mom harped on me forever ago to go get tested and at the time I didn’t think anything of it,” Woodworth said.

She is now 56 and was diagnosed with colon cancer after that first screening about 30 years ago, when doctors discovered hundreds of polyps clinging to her intestinal tract. Colorectal cancer, which starts in the colon or rectum, is usually detected by a “polyp,” or a growth on the inner surface of the colon or rectum. Most polyps start as non-cancerous, but if left untreated can become so.

Due to Woodworth’s long-standing history with the disease, she developed a genetic mutation that predisposed her to colorectal cancer. Her grandfather, four uncles and mother, all passed away from cancer.

And recently, one of Woodworth’s daughters, Nicole Wyatt, went in for genetic testing at Kalispell Regional Medical Center after also being convinced by her mother to do so — a test that determines one’s risk for cancer based on family history. Once a doctor determines how at-risk a patient is for developing the disease, they determine how often one should receive a screening, which most commonly includes a colonoscopy.

After doctors determined that Wyatt, 31, was at risk, she underwent a screening that revealed about 100 polyps.

“This journey has been a rough one for her,” Woodworth said of Wyatt. “When I first told her to go get tested because of our family history, she didn’t really want to talk to me about it.”

Wyatt, who lives in Paradise, has now undergone multiple tests and was recently referred by Kalispell Regional staff to a doctor in Missoula who specializes in a specific type of surgery needed to remove her polyps. Although Wyatt said the findings have been stressful, having her mother as a source to relate to and lean on has brought her some comfort.

“Having my mom walk with me every step of the way is making it easier,” Wyatt said. “She’s been my biggest support in this.”

March is colorectal cancer awareness month, a time dedicated to spreading awareness of a disease labeled the third-most common cancer diagnosed in men and women in the United States, excluding skin cancers. According to the American Cancer Society, it is estimated there will be about 150,000 new cases of colorectal cancer diagnosed in 2019.

In Montana, two in five residents ages 50 to 75 are not up-to-date with colorectal screening recommendations. For decades, doctors have recommended patients receive a colonoscopy at 50 years old. At that age, most people are considered more susceptible to developing the disease.

However, according to Dr. Jeurgen Mueller with the Digestive Health Institute at Kalispell Regional, some professionals recommend that screening process begin closer to 45.

“For normal patients who have no risk factors like family history, they just get a nice birthday present for their 50th,” Mueller. “But now we find is that more and more younger people actually develop colon polyps and cancer. So we’re finding people under 50 who have already full-blown colon cancer. We would like to catch people earlier.”

According to Carrie Ann Thompson, a nurse practitioner with the Digestive Health Institute, screenings can begin as early as 10 to 12 years of age if someone is at high risk because of family history or other means. She says consistent screening has the potential to reduce colorectal cancer deaths by 60 percent.

Thompson and Mueller say even if just one person in your family has been diagnosed with colorectal cancer or a different kind of cancer, rather than numerous members throughout the family tree, other members should receive genetic testing, even if they are under the age of 50.

“There are genetic hereditary cancer syndromes that can happen ‘de novo,’ meaning you can absolutely no family history whatsoever, but all of a sudden in that one person, it can crop up,” Thompson said. “Then those people are the ones that could potentially start passing the abnormality to their family members.”

Hospital officials say the Digestive Health Institute performs around 450 colonoscopy procedures, which doesn’t include those done in other areas throughout Kalispell Regional.

Most insurances pay for colorectal cancer screenings, but if abnormalities are found and taken care of, such as removal of a polyp, co-pays may kick in for the procedure, which vary in pricing. Patients are encouraged to speak with a financial counselor in order to fully understand the billing process.

Screening procedures for colorectal cancer include colonoscopies, various fecal tests, and cologuard, which is a special type of fecal testing combined with DNA testing. Gastrointestinal symptoms that could be indicative of colorectal cancer include blood in the stool, changes in bowel habits and movements and weight loss. Inflammatory bowel disease is often associated with colorectal cancer, and if one has a history of the disease, it may increase their risk for colorectal cancer as well.

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4439 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com

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