Joe “Lin” Smith’s dream was to be a race car driver. He laughs when he tells the story about racing being too dangerous for his parents, so they sent him to flight school. After dreaming of flying around the track within inches of other speeding cars, and a long career of actually flying planes for commercial airlines, Lin came across a situation that really scared him – a cancer diagnosis. He became one of more than 150,000 Americans diagnosed with colorectal cancer each year, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).
“When a doctor stares you in the face and tells you that you have six months to live, whether he’s correct or not, it changes your outlook,” Lin Smith says of the moment he was diagnosed with stage three colorectal cancer. “Family becomes more important.”
Nobody was more important to Lin at that moment than his wife, Sylvia, who shared in his fear. “When I first heard the words ‘colon cancer,” she says, “My heart just dropped.”
It was Sylvia who had previously pushed Lin into action when she found out he had rectal bleeding. “I was in shock,” she says. “I told him, ‘We have to do something – immediately.”
After hearing the diagnosis of stage three cancer, the couple set out to find the right care and to prove the prognosis wrong. This led them to Janice Rafferty, MD, the Chief of Colon and Rectal Surgery and Director of Oncology Services at The Christ Hospital Health Network.
“We got a lot of referrals, and her name came up almost unanimously,” Sylvia says.
When the couple met with Dr. Rafferty to discuss Lin’s diagnosis and his options for treatment, their outlook immediately improved, and they knew they had the right team to meet the challenge of Lin’s cancer.
“They were all in. They were hugely invested in his diagnosis, his treatment, and his recovery,” Dr. Rafferty says. “This was going to be a team effort. I had a lot of work to do, but so did they, and I think that bilateral, trusting relationship is really important.”
The Smiths bought in to that trusting relationship and were ready to get to work. “From the moment she spoke to us, she made me feel so relaxed about the process,” Lin says.
A plan to directly remove the cancer
In Lin’s case, the first step in that process to go right to surgery to remove the cancer.
“Treatment depends on the stage and location,” Dr. Rafferty says. “When it’s in the rectum, doctors often recommend pretreatment with chemotherapy and radiation. When it’s in the colon, and has not spread to other organs, more often than not, we’re going to recommend having surgery up front to remove the cancer.”
Dr. Rafferty removed the diseased section of Lin’s colon and performed an anastomosis – a procedure to reconnect the healthy portions of the colon. Her team was aided by fluorescence guided imaging, a technology that enables them to visualize microvascular blood flow.
“By assessing blood flow into the colon conduit, we can perform a technically perfect anastomosis,” Dr. Rafferty says.
From cancer patient to cancer survivor
Two years after receiving the grim prognosis that came along with the diagnosis of stage three cancer, Lin can now say he’s a cancer survivor and it’s due in large part to a strong team effort during his treatment.
“They did absolutely everything they could to make sure he did well through this process,” Dr. Rafferty says about Lin, Sylvia, and their family. “We were in it together.”
She also credits her team at The Christ Hospital for their passionate approach to caring for their patients.
“We’ve all been patients at one time, and we’ve all had family members on the other side,” she says. “It’s extremely difficult, but as someone who’s been there, you develop compassion. You develop an idea of what it takes to advocate for yourself.”
The Smiths acknowledge the compassionate care that Lin received during his treatment.
“After everything we’ve been through with Dr. Rafferty and her team, she’s more like a friend than a doctor,” Lin says.
“She saved my husband’s life. And I thank her from the bottom of my heart,” Sylvia adds. “It takes someone special to be able to talk to a patient to make them feel comfortable.”
Prevention and early detection: The best cures for colorectal cancer
Colorectal cancer is highly treatable when it’s found early before it reaches the lymph nodes or spreads to other organs. But finding it early usually involves being proactive. The bleeding that led to Lin’s colonoscopy may have saved his life, but that’s not always the case.
“The most common symptom of colorectal cancer is ‘nothing,” Dr. Rafferty says. “That’s why it’s important to keep up with recommended screenings such as a colonoscopy – even those at average risk. The average American with no inherited risk has about a six percent chance to develop colorectal cancer in their lifetime and awareness means everything when it comes to treating and surviving it.”
At 98 percent accuracy, colonoscopies are by far the most effective way for early detection of colorectal cancer. They can even allow doctors to find and remove polyps before they become cancerous. The ACS recommends that people at average risk of colorectal cancer start regular screening at age 45.
“Having gone through this, I highly recommend everyone getting a colonoscopy at 45,” Lin says. “Pay attention to your own health.”
For those with inherited risk, such as Lin’s family, earlier screening might be recommended. In fact, he urged his family to follow up with screening of their own.
“My oldest daughter was 44 and they found and removed a polyp that could cause problems later on,” he says. “Hopefully this saves her the nightmare of having to find out later that she has cancer.”
Talk to your primary care provider to schedule a colonoscopy or to discuss what screening is best for you.