Michael Buckwalter, a freelance horn player, had always been healthy. So, he didn’t worry too much about skipping primary care services like physicals and colonoscopies because of his limited insurance coverage. But a few years ago, that all changed.
“I had the occasional bout of hemorrhoids,” he says. “Because I’m a horn player, that’s pretty common. But in 2013, after treating the hemorrhoids, I noticed the pain wasn’t going away.”
Buckwalter, age 61 at the time, went to see Dr. Joaquin Estrada, a colon and rectal surgeon at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago. Dr. Estrada recommended a colonoscopy, which confirmed his suspicion—Buckwalter had colon cancer.
“I was surprised,” Buckwalter says. “I thought, ‘Wait a minute—I’m not done yet. I’ve got a fantastic marriage. I’ve got a fantastic career. I’m not done with those things yet.’ So, I decided I was going to fight it.”
The American Cancer Society recommends regular colon cancer screenings beginning at age 50 for men and women at average risk for colon cancer. With a colonoscopy, generally considered the gold standard among colon cancer screening options, doctors use a long, flexible scope with a camera on the end to look for tumors in the colon, Dr. Estrada says. They also look for polyps, or precancerous growths on the colon lining, which they can remove during the procedure, reducing the person’s risk of developing cancer.
Within a couple weeks of his diagnosis, Buckwalter had chemotherapy and radiation, which effectively stopped his tumor from growing any more. Then, Dr. Estrada performed surgery to remove his tumor and minimize the risk of recurrence.
“If a person’s tumor is higher up in their colon, we are able to remove that portion of the colon and connect the bowels back up again—that’s ideal,” Dr. Estrada says. “However, because of the location of Michael’s tumor was so low, he required a colostomy—when the stool has to enter from the surface of the abdomen into a bag.”
Initially, this was a concern for Buckwalter because he uses his core muscles for his work and he was worried the procedure would affect his ability to perform.
“What I do for a living actually helped,” Buckwalter says. “All the core work made me stronger than some other people might be, so I was able to recover more quickly.”
Recovery was still long and difficult, Buckwalter says, but today he is feeling great, and he continues to perform regularly. His only regret is that he didn’t find his colon cancer sooner.
“I had put off tests because they were expensive,” he says. “I didn’t get my first colonoscopy until 11 years after the recommended age. Now I tell everyone, ‘Find a way to afford the tests. They are expensive, but get them done.’”
According to the American Cancer Society, the Affordable Care Act requires any plans started after September 23, 2010, to cover colorectal cancer screening. Plans started before that date may not provide full coverage.
The good news for Buckwalter and many others with colon cancer is that the condition, when caught early enough, is very beatable, Dr. Estrada says.
“If we do find a colon cancer, this is something we can treat, and you can live a normal life,” Dr. Estrada says.