MARIETTA — Laverne King has a few words for those who “put off” colonoscopy tests.
“Stop procrastinating and just do it,” said King, 67, from Cartersville, who is a 16-year employee of WellStar Kennestone Hospital’s radiology department.
King’s days are filled with patient appointment schedules for CT scans and x-rays. Her department is tasked with creating and managing thousands of images that reveal tumors that help doctors catch cancer before it’s too late.
In March, King’s role was reversed after a colonoscopy revealed she had rectal cancer.
“I became a patient myself,” she said. Though she never imagined being a patient at her place of work, she has undergone radiation and chemotherapy for the past five weeks and is scheduled for surgery to remove a small mass.
June is Cancer Survivor Month. To celebrate life and raise awareness, WellStar Health System recently hosted a Cancer Survivorship event at Kennestone Cancer Center, a family-fun event with food, music and games, meant to celebrate survivors and patients who have or are currently receiving treatment at WellStar. King was a featured speaker.
“I was due to go in for a medicine refill, and a physician’s assistant was looking at my chart. She said, ‘I see you haven’t had a colonoscopy in a while. How about doing one?’ I told her cancer didn’t run in our family and the last one I had didn’t show anything except a few hemorrhoids. Anyway, I hated doing colonoscopies because they make me sick,” King recalled. “She suggested a box test that I do at home and send off called ‘Cologuard.’ So I did. That test saved my life. It caught it, and it was only Stage 1 cancer.”
The box test is 99% sure, but a colonoscopy is 100% sure if there’s colon cancer, she said.
“I tell people to quit procrastinating and do the colonoscopy. Don’t wait for a sign. Get those screenings because they can save your life,” she said. “When I got the diagnosis, it scared me. I went in the bathroom and cried. But then I decided to fight this thing all the way. I really believe if you say a prayer every night for God to put you with the right people at the right time, he will connect all the dots, and prayer is what got me here today.”
Dr. Carmen Klass, the oncologist who supervised King’s care at the Kennestone Cancer Center, said 50% of U.S. colorectal cancer deaths could be prevented if Americans just did their colon screening and colonoscopies. Yet only 40% have screenings.
“Why? Isn’t it better to prevent it rather than treat it?” Klass said.
The problem is largely based in fear, she said.
“Too many people use the internet to get medical information. But you shouldn’t let Facebook or Google be your doctors,” she said. “It’s so easy to say, ‘If I had cancer I’d get a ticket to the Bahamas.’ No, you wouldn’t. The problem is you would wait until the symptoms are so bad that you need help, but by then the window may have closed.”
Surrounded by Encouragement
Dr. Michael Andrews, oncologist at Kennestone Hospital and chief cancer officer for the WellStar Health System, said the purpose of Survivors Day celebration is for all the people at Wellstar involved in cancer care from doctors to dietitians to come around the survivors with an upbeat day of encouragement.
An important factor in every patient’s survival is overcoming the stigma associated with the disease, Andrews said.
“Every person who has cancer writes their own story,” he said. “Sometimes the stories are great, sometimes not. But as patients go through the process, they grow as people immeasurably. They become much more caring, sensitive and aware when they come out at the end. It’s a very scary thing. Many patients are frightened when they get the diagnosis. A lot of people don’t understand that you can live with it and many cases overcome it. Friends, family and society have stigmatized cancer and equate it with something that you can’t beat (or) overcome.”
At times those people make well-intentioned but harmful comments, projecting their own fears.
“That’s why it is important for a cancer patient to surround themselves with a team, not just the doctors and staff, but also friends and family who convey a positive message and help that patient get through it,” he said. “And that’s why we have this celebration.”