Colon Cancer Happens: Get Screened
As a long-time family physician, Mikel Holland, MD, of Pierre can understand that patients may explain away troublesome symptoms or attribute them to something minor.
He’s been there, done that.
“I had noticed some changes in how my bowels were working. I’d been tired and had some back pain. I always had a good reason I could attribute it to – stress, lack of sleep, not the best eating habits,” he said.
Yet when his 50th birthday came around, he didn’t delay and went in for his first screening colonoscopy. The next day, he was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer. “It was pretty obvious to my surgeon, Dr. Eldon Becker, but a biopsy told us for sure.” Follow-up CT and PET scans confirmed had spread to his lymph nodes.
Next steps were an MRI, and meeting with medical oncologists in Sioux Falls and Pierre. His treatment plan involved neoadjuvant chemotherapy – which means chemotherapy before surgery. “I was able to do my IV chemo in Pierre, and then had six weeks radiation and oral chemo in Sioux Falls,” he said.
He could continue to work in his current position as President and Chief Medical Officer at Avera St. Mary’s Hospital in Pierre – even while in Sioux Falls. “They found me some office space at the Prairie Center,” he said.
His surgery is in late March, which happens to be Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month.
Construction of the Helmsley Center is underway with an opening planned in the fall of this year. This new facility, supported by grant funding of up to $10 million from The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, will be home to a new Avera Cancer Institute location in Pierre that includes a linear accelerator for radiation treatment.
“For me, the timing is a bit ironic. We’re doing this in Pierre so people won’t have to travel. We’re far enough away from other cancer centers that you can’t jump in the car, have treatment, and then go home the same day.” Radiation treatments often take place five days a week for a prescribed period of time. In Holland’s case, it was six weeks.
“On the bright side I learned a lot about radiation oncology I didn’t know. It’s given me a lot of insight into what people in central South Dakota face when radiation oncology is recommended as part of the treatment plan,” Holland said.
Pierre has offered medical oncology services for some time, yet the new Helmsley Center will allow enhanced services including radiation oncology. “Patients can not only get diagnosed in Pierre, they can get treatment for the majority of cases. Telemedicine is available to make sure patients can get a second opinion, and that their case is reviewed by tumor conferences,” Holland said. “People can stay in Pierre and get the same exact care that they could get in Sioux Falls.”
For people 45 and older, Holland has the same advice that is often shared with patients: Get screened for colorectal cancer. “It’s not that big of a deal. Colon cancer is preventable," Holland said. "If the doctor sees precancerous polyps, he or she can remove them before they become cancerous.”
Secondly, don’t ignore symptoms such as weight loss, bowel changes or blood in the stool. “I had all of these and blamed them on something else,” he said.
“Colon cancer is very treatable. My cancer is stage III. It’s not as good as it could have been, but it’s not stage IV,” he said. “With chemotherapy, I didn’t lose my hair and I didn’t miss work. As advanced as chemo has become, you can go on with your life and focus on other things.”
With the neoadjuvant chemotherapy and radiation oncology treatments that have been completed, “there’s a really good chance they will get any remaining cancer with surgery,” Holland said. “We’ll hope it never comes back, but if it does there are other treatments we can try.”