Three years ago, 61-year-old Sharon Tschider from Bismarck, North Dakota, noticed she had bleeding with her bowel movements. Married and the mother of seven children, at first she thought the bleeding was coming from hemorrhoids resulting from her many pregnancies. But after the bleeding continued for two months she underwent a colonoscopy, an exam that views the entire colon, and was diagnosed with a rectal cancer.
"It was devastating news," says Sharon, who found her hometown of 75,000 praying for her and sending her hundreds of get well cards. "I'd never been sick, and I'm a high-energy, positive thinking, type-A personality."
Her gastroenterologist referred Sharon to Bruce Wolff, MD, a colorectal surgeon at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. In addition to being proficient in general surgery, colorectal surgeons like Dr. Wolff have specialized training, knowledge and surgical skill with regard to problems of the colon, rectum, anus, and small bowel. Studies have shown that patients treated by colorectal surgeons are more likely to survive colorectal cancer because of the surgeons' additional education and training and experience performing a high volume of colorectal surgeries.
Dr. Wolff determined that the cancer was low in the rectum, the organ that stores stool. "A cancer like Sharon's takes seven to 10 years to develop from a benign polyp," explains Dr. Wolff. "If patients like Sharon come to me early for a routine check-up, I perform a colonoscopy and can detect and remove their polyps before they become cancerous. By the time Sharon reached me, her tumor was fairly large and her best option was low anterior resection surgery to remove the tumor, with the possible addition of radiation and chemotherapy."
"Sharon's surgery involved removing the cancerous tumor near her rectum, and then performing a coloanal anastomosis, with the addition of a 'colonic J-pouch' to improve frequency," describes Dr. Wolff. "To do this, I turned the colon around on itself and created a pouch shaped like a 'J' that would eventually prevent the need for a colostomy bag." The "colonic J pouch" procedure is a recent advance in colorectal surgery that enables patients to have less frequent bowel movements after removal of the rectum. A temporary loop ileostomy was performed to allow the J-pouch to heal before using it.
Sharon's surgery went smoothly, and she recovered at home. "I can't recommend more the importance of home health care," states Sharon. "I needed to be with family and friends; it was really important to my healing."
Sharon bounced back to her old busy life: three months after her surgery she took a trip to Hawaii. "I even went snorkeling, jumping ten feet off the side of a boat, with my ileostomy bag tucked under my bathing suit," says Sharon, with a laugh.
When the ileostomy was removed, her trips to the bathroom were reduced to four to six times a day, down significantly from the 50 times a day she counted pre-surgery. Now at age 64, Sharon has had her annual colonoscopy, and she won't need another exam for two years.
"Timing is everything," sums up Sharon. "If the tumor had penetrated the rectal wall it would have been all over - I never could have had this life-saving surgery. The whole painful ordeal changed my life. But today I have a very good life."