Cancer has a deserved reputation as a killer, and in many cases it remains a deadly diagnosis. Increasingly, however, we are seeing patients survive for a decade and even longer. As a result, more and more we are shifting our focus to “managing cancer.”
But what exactly does that mean?
For some patients, colorectal cancer becomes a chronic disease with ongoing treatment, similar to heart disease or diabetes. In fact, many types of chemotherapy today are available in tablets that patients can take on their own. Some patients can experience long periods of remission before a recurrence; others live with the disease every day.
Meet a long-term colon cancer survivor
One of my patients, Charles Quarton, has survived colon cancer for more than a decade. Charles was first diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer in 2005 while living in Philadelphia. After having colon surgery, he was given the standard combination chemotherapy treatment at the time – Folfox. Chemotherapy is often given as a combination of drugs, which usually works better than single drugs because different drugs kill cancer cells in different ways.
After six months of treatment, Charles resumed his normal life. His doctors continued to monitor him with follow-up scans. In 2011, they found that the cancer had spread to his lungs, and in the summer of 2012, Charles began a new treatment regimen called Folfiri. By 2014, he and his wife Michele had decided to relocate to Dallas to be closer to their two daughters and their granddaughter. That’s when Charles became my patient.
Now 72 and retired from his career as an engineer and a patent attorney, Charles is learning how to live with his cancer. He receives treatment every three weeks. Because he regularly experiences side effects from the treatment, including neuropathy, joint aches, and muscle aches, he works with a trainer at Moncrief Cancer Institute in Fort Worth, which helps him tolerate the treatment better. He’s also attended nutrition courses at Moncrief, and he’s learned to cook healthier meals, which helps him feel better by improving his overall health.
Different the second time around
Recently, Charles shared with me the differences in his response to hearing he had cancer the first time and then a second time six years later. “At first it was the ‘Big C,’ and all I could think was ‘you die from cancer.’ After my initial shock, I realized that if I had the knowledge, I could deal with it. I could see the path to recovery and try to ride down the center of the path. The second time I was diagnosed, I knew it was a chronic disease that could be treated. It’s a big bridge to cross from seeing cancer as a death sentence to seeing it as a chronic disease.”
Crossing the bridge with him is Michele, who survived cervical cancer years ago. Through a caregiver support group at Moncrief, she finds encouragement and resources that aid her and Charles on their journey.
“Their support is a tremendous help in realizing that you’re not alone,” Michele says. “I lost both my parents to cancer and had cervical cancer in my 20s. I’ve had a long relationship with cancer, and that experience has led me to be somewhat stoic about Chuck’s cancer."
But cancer treatment isn’t the only thing happening in their lives. Since his diagnosis, Charles has traveled to Iceland, and he reports that it’s actually quite green. Both Charles and Michele are looking forward to their granddaughter’s high school graduation this spring.
What will the next steps be for Charles? We are hoping that if his current treatment stops working – which is a common scenario when the body develops resistance to chemotherapy – we will have a new treatment to offer.
Colon cancer death rates are declining on average 2.8% each year, which shows we are getting better at finding it early, removing colon polyps, and treating it effectively when it does develop into cancer. Our best bet is a continued emphasis on screening everyone age 50 and older for colon cancer so we can find it and treat it.
Moving forward, we’ll continue to manage cancer in improved ways and leave behind the days of submission to this disease. One thing is certain: The longer a patient survives after colon cancer, the more options he or she is likely to have as new treatments are developed and brought to market. And the newest treatments are quickly made available at academic medical centers, where researchers and clinicians work side by side.
Have you or a loved one survived colon cancer? Share your story with us on Twitter or Facebook using the hashtag #CallOutCancer.