Deborah Denny was only 49 years old when she was diagnosed with rectal cancer, despite no family history of the disease. Fortunately, her cancer was caught early and was easily treatable. In Deborah’s case, being proactive about her health made all the difference.

News, Your Health | one year ago

Deborah’s Proactive Approach Led to Early Discovery, and Successful Treatment, of Rectal Cancer

Deborah Denny was only 49 years old when she was diagnosed with rectal cancer, despite no family history of the disease. Fortunately, her cancer was caught early and was easily treatable. In Deborah’s case, being proactive about her health made all the difference.

Deborah Denny describes herself as someone who doesn’t take her health for granted. As a single mom to two children, she knows firsthand how important it is to put your health first and foremost. She decided long ago she wanted to be the best version of herself, and made a concerted effort to get healthy for her own sake and for her kids. Deb started eating right and exercising regularly, and she got yearly physicals. So, when she noticed some blood in her stool, she was concerned.

“At first, I didn’t really want to think about it,” Deb says. “But I couldn’t just ignore it. After I looked up my symptoms, I thought it was probably just internal hemorrhoids, nothing to worry about.” Deb didn’t have any history of colorectal cancer in her family, and she was only in her 40s. “But I kept seeing a little bit of blood when I used the bathroom, and it kept nagging at me,” she recalls.

Colorectal cancer is common, and can be caught early

According to the Colorectal Cancer Alliance, nearly 150,000 people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2021 and colorectal cancer is the third most diagnosed cancer in men and women combined in the U.S.

Signs and symptoms of colon and rectal cancer can include rectal bleeding, anal itching, a change in bowel habits such as diarrhea or constipation, or persistent abdominal discomfort. If you notice any of these signs or symptoms, make an appointment with your doctor to discuss them.

It’s possible to catch colorectal cancer early, and there are treatment options available that ensure the best possible outcomes when the cancer is detected in these early stages.  

A yearly checkup leads to a recommendation for a colonoscopy

Deb’s first step was a visit to Lorri Ayers, MD, her primary care doctor at Atrium Health’s Perspective Health and Wellness. During her annual physical, Deb mentioned her concern to Dr. Ayers, who recommended a colonoscopy.

It should have been simple enough for Deb to get one – but because she was still under 50, her insurance company denied the request. Deb had to decide whether or not she should wait until she turned 50 – which would happen in six months – to get the colonoscopy done.

“There was just something telling me to go ahead and do it, even though I would have to pay out of pocket and there was a less expensive option right around the corner. I just couldn't sleep without knowing what was going on,” Deb says.

Surprising results from a routine examination

Deb’s colonoscopy confirmed that her bleeding came from an internal hemorrhoid, as she’d suspected. But she also had two polyps – a medium-sized one and a fairly large one. A few days later, Deb received a call from Corlan Eboh, MD, a gastroenterologist with Atrium Health Gastroenterology and Hepatology and the doctor who performed her colonoscopy. Dr. Eboh told Deb that she had rectal cancer. “I was in shock,” says Deb. “I had tears streaming down my face later that day.”

Deb then scheduled an endoscopic procedure with Shailendra Chauhan, MD, a gastroenterologist with Atrium Health Gastroenterology and Hepatology to remove more tissue at the site where her cancer was found  and see if there was any deeper cancer still present. Fortunately, Dr. Chauhan was able to remove  deeper  tissue and determined that Deb’s cancer had not spread.

Deb’s procedure coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, so she had to go into the endoscopy suite by herself in November 2020. “Everyone was so kind and comforting,” Deb recalls. “They could tell I was feeling emotional and distressed, and they were all sympathetic. I felt very safe, and Dr. Chauhan’s bedside manner is just phenomenal.”  

A novel device helps ensure Deb was fully cancer-free  

Dr. Chauhan is a gastroenterologist who specializes in therapeutic endoscopy  and whose expertise includes the resection of complex polyps and early cancers. Dr. Chauhan was able to use a full-thickness resection device, a novel endoscopic device, to remove more of the tissue where Deb’s polyp was to ensure she was completely cancer-free.

According to Dr. Chauhan, “This device  wasn’t available even a few years ago. With this device, and other tools like it, we can resect more tissue without having a patient require formal surgery.” Deb was able to have the procedure as an outpatient, with no overnight hospital stay required.

“By using the full-thickness resection device and a scope, there was no need to make any incisions. I could enter through the anus and resect the tissue that way,” explains Dr. Chauhan. “I was able to take out more tissue in a less invasive way, sparing Deb a surgery while making sure she was cancer-free.”

The benefits of having a minimally invasive procedure instead of a surgery are numerous, and include less risk, less bleeding, less pain, less time spent in a medical setting, and faster recovery. “We watched Deb for about 30-40 minutes after her procedure, and then she was able to go home,” says Dr. Chauhan.

Deb also consulted with an oncologist, Reza Nazemzadeh, MD, with Atrium Health Levine Cancer Institute, who concurred that Deb was 100% cancer free and didn’t need any additional treatments. Deb also saw a specialist in integrative health, Chasse Bailey-Dorton, MD, who helped Deb make sure she was eating right and taking the right supplements to help her remain in her best health.   

A healthy future lies ahead

Deb will continue to have yearly colonoscopies to make sure she stays healthy.

“I’m so fortunate that I got my colonoscopy when I did,” says Deb. “Every doctor I saw said to me, ‘You’re a lucky lady’. If I had waited until my next physical, it would have been at the end of the following year, and I might not have scheduled my colonoscopy until a few months after that because of the holidays,” Deb reflects. “And by that point, my cancer could have really spread.”

Dr. Chauhan agrees, saying, “If there’s no family history of colon cancer, current guidelines suggest starting colorectal screenings at age 50. But if you have any symptoms or notice anything different, like a change in your bowel movements or blood in your stool, you should consult with a doctor. If your doctor suggests a colonoscopy for such new symptoms , I strongly recommend getting it. The sooner we catch a problem like colon cancer, the sooner we can  prevent a potential worse outcome.”

“It may not be a fun thing to do, but I’m living proof that cancers like mine are preventable and fixable if you have them, especially if you can catch them early,” Deb says. “It’s a simple thing you can do to protect yourself and your health.” 

Schedule your screening and learn more about how it is safe to get care.

Learn more about Atrium Health Gastroenterology and Hepatology and Levine Cancer Institute

Read more about colorectal cancer