A Family Fight Against Colorectal Cancer | MedStar Health

A Family Fight Against Colorectal Cancer

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Janet Langley and her father J.C. Tubbs stand on the dock in a marina.

Leonardtown, Maryland — Children expect to share many memories with parents as they grow older. What they never plan to share? Diagnoses of cancer — or pre-cancer, in Janet Langley’s case.

Janet, 46, began experiencing stomach pains last summer. She saw multiple doctors to puzzle out what was causing them before arriving at the office of U.K. Shah, MD, board-certified gastroenterologist at MedStar Shah Medical Group. Dr. Shah ran multiple tests to ascertain the source of her discomfort.

“At the same time I was experiencing this, my father had similar symptoms,” said Janet, of Solomons. “He went in for a colonoscopy and found out he had colon cancer. I had a colonoscopy myself just to make sure that had nothing to do with what I had going on.”

Regarded by many adults as an uncomfortable but necessary rite of passage, colonoscopies are procedures in which a clinician uses a flexible instrument to examine images of the colon and rectum. This view can reveal swollen and irritated tissue, ulcers, and polyps — common growths involving the lining of the bowel.

An estimated 15 to 40 percent of adults may have polyps, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), and most are not dangerous. However, some polyps will turn cancerous over time — and removing them can help prevent colorectal cancer, the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States.

Testing revealed a large polyp in the bend of Janet’s colon. Due to its location, it could not be removed during the colonoscopy or an additional procedure known as a polyp resection.

Janet was referred to Tushar Samdani, MD, colorectal surgeon at MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital. Dr. Samdani was simultaneously treating Janet’s father, J.C. Tubbs, for colorectal cancer.

For those at average risk, colorectal screenings are recommended to begin at age 50 by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. At 46, Janet — with no known history of colon cancer until her father’s concurrent diagnosis — would not have been flagged for testing.

Janet had surgery to remove the polyp in 2018. A biopsy confirmed it was an adenoma — a precancerous growth.

“If I had waited, it would have definitely been cancer,” said Janet. “And I feel very fortunate because I probably would not have followed up attempting to remove the polyp if my dad hadn’t been going through the same thing. I would have procrastinated, and it’s a good thing I didn’t.”

“Around 10 to 20 percent of patients who develop colorectal cancer have other family members who have had it. Patients with a history of colorectal cancer in a first-degree relative (parent, sibling, or child) are at twice the increased risk,” said Dr. Samdani. “The risk is even greater if the relative was diagnosed when they were younger than 45, or if more than one first-degree relative is affected.

“It is important that patients with colorectal cancer or even precancerous (adenomatous) polyps inform their close relatives so that they can talk with their doctor about starting screening at an earlier age,” he continued. “With regular screening, colon cancer can often be found early when it is most likely to be treated successfully.”

Today, Janet and J.C. are both doing well. They will continue to undergo regular screenings to monitor any polyps that may develop.

“The colonoscopy itself was simple compared to the preparation for it,” said Janet. The cleansing process necessary to ensure a clear view during a colonoscopy can be challenging for patients, but Janet said the discomfort is “well worth it.”

“If I could convince somebody to just get beyond that preparation, the rest is just to breathe,” she continued. “It’s all worth it if you consider what could happen if you didn’t catch a problem in time.”

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. Visit MedStarStMarys.org/Colon to learn more about the risk factors for colorectal cancer, including recommended screenings.