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The Reluctant (and Lucky) Survivor

Wermers Family

Michel Wermers will stop you on the street to remind you that colon cancer is the #1 cancer in men.

Michael Wermers, a father and husband, local business owner and president of the Torrance United School District Board of Education, was reluctant to get his first colonoscopy for the same reasons that plague many people. After much grief from his wife and friends, he eventually went to Torrance Memorial Medical Center for his colonoscopy—with zero symptoms at age 51—and was told he had colon cancer.

“Men are reluctant to go to the doctor, and I was one of them. But I am a man who had zero symptoms. I wasn’t tired. My diet didn’t change. I had no extra trips to the bathroom. Without a colonoscopy, I never would have found the cancer in my body.”

Norman M. Panitch, MD, gastroenterologist, president of the Torrance Hospital IPA and Torrance Memorial’s former chief of staff, explains, “Colon cancer is the most common cancer in males and perhaps second or third in women. But this is a disease that can be prevented, because there is something called the polyp-cancer sequence (or syndrome).”

Dr. Panitch continues, “All colon cancers come from pre-existing polyps in the colon that begin to form when a person is in his or her 40s, due to chromosomal abnormality. Most polyps can be detected by age 50. The current recommendation is to have your first colonoscopy at age 50, because the incidence of colon cancer begins at that age.”

While Wermers admits that it is awkward and uncomfortable, he (quite literally) tells everyone he meets who looks old enough for a colonoscopy that it is painless and the preparation is not as bad as everyone says.

One week after his colonoscopy, Wermers was told he had colon cancer. Fast-forward one month, and he left Torrance Memorial to go home to his family cancer-free—a short stint with cancer compared to most survivors. The colonoscopy caught his cancer early, which is the goal of the procedure.

His was Stage A colon cancer, meaning it was just in the lining of the colon and had not penetrated into the muscle layer. “There are four stages of colon cancer: A, B, C, D (stages 1, 2, 3, 4),” explains Dr. Panitch. “Stage 1 is when we want to pick it up.”

Colon cancer is one of the only cancers that can be truly cured before it metastasizes or spreads. “We want our patient to not have any symptoms at all,” says Dr. Panitch. “We don’t want bleeding, pain, etc. We want them coming in feeling perfectly well. In 10% of those patients we will find colonic polyps. We remove these polyps with electricity and send them to a pathologist. Even if there is cancer, if it does not go into the muscle layer … just removing the polyp, we can cure the patient.”

Dr. Panitch emphasizes that everyone must have their colonoscopy at age 50, and then every five to 10 years after that. If someone has a polyp, it is important that they come back in three years. If multiple polyps are found, that patient returns in one year. The incidence of colon cancer increases in patients in their 60s and 70s, and by their 80s the incidence starts to decrease.

“If someone has a family history of colon cancer—either mother, father, sister, brother or child, we screen 10 to 15 years earlier than that person who had colon cancer. The younger the age of the person in the family who had cancer—let’s say at 40 years as a mother—we would screen their family members at age 30,” says Dr. Panitch.

“I got lucky on timing and everything that goes with that,” says Wermers. “Now I make certain that I hammer everyone I know to go get their colonoscopy on time. The number of people I know who have lost someone to colon cancer is stunning, and based on my experience, it’s quite treatable. But you have to go in to have your first colonoscopy when you are supposed to. Do not wait.”

Colon Cancer: What You Need to Know

  • It is the most common cancer in males.

  • It is preventable and curable if proper screening protocols are followed.

  • You should get a colonoscopy at age 50 (earlier if you have a family history of colon cancer).

  • Doctors want you to be symptom-free when you come in for a colonoscopy; do not wait until you are ill.

  • The preparation for a colonoscopy is much more pleasant than it was 10 years ago. Previously, the patient drank 5 liters of a salty solution that usually induced vomiting. Now a simple preparation of MiraLAX mixed with Gatorade is used.

  • One key to a good colonoscopy is to split the preparation liquid: take one-half the night before (four glasses) and four glasses in the morning. This improves polyp pick-up by 10% to 15%.

  • The other key to a good colonoscopy is to see a doctor who has performed the procedure for at least 10 years.

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