Kristine Patella was just 38 years old when diagnosed—a colonoscopy saved her life.
“I’ve heard many people say that they’re young and don’t have any symptoms, so they don’t need a colon cancer screening,” says Kristine Patella, a colon cancer survivor who was treated at Jefferson Health. “However, I tell them that the point of a screening is to catch problems early so they can be treated successfully. By the time you have symptoms, it’s likely that you have advanced disease.”
Patella was 38 years old at the time of her colon cancer diagnosis and living a busy life with three young children. There were some challenging times during the journey, and she hopes her story helps other people understand the importance of screening and early diagnosis. She recently passed the 10-year anniversary of her diagnosis and will celebrate eight years with no evidence of disease this April.
“I live a healthy life and don’t drink or smoke,” she says. “My grandfather had colon cancer but neither of my parents did, so my risks are not necessarily higher than anyone else’s. The idea is to get screened to catch colon cancer early so it can be treated before it progresses.”
An Uncomfortable Conversation that Could Save Your Life
Patella, a biology teacher before becoming a stay-at-home mom, doesn’t shy away from talking about the more unpleasant symptoms that can accompany colon cancer, but understands why others may be reluctant.
“My only symptom was blood in my stool,” she says. “I talked about it with friends who mentioned they’d experienced similar symptoms and attributed them to hemorrhoids and the stress of giving birth.” [Editor’s Note: Read more about what bloody stool may mean from a gastroenterologist here.]
But Patella had a few middle-of-the-night anxious thoughts that made her realize it was time to talk to her doctor and get a colonoscopy. When that diagnostic colonoscopy revealed a mass that her local doctor thought was cancerous, she immediately thought of Jefferson Health for her next steps.
“We’re lucky to have one of the nation’s premier hospitals for cancer treatment in our backyard,” says Patella. “And when I met Dr. Scott Goldstein, I knew he was the right doctor for me. He immediately understood the importance and pressure to keep a mom of three little kids alive. He also recommended oncologist Dr. Edith Mitchell and her amazing nurse practitioner Eleanor Vanderklok.”
A Long Journey Full of Hope
Patella’s journey with colon cancer has had its ups and downs. At the time of her initial diagnosis, her cancer was stage 3C, which means the depth of the tumor extended beyond the colon. Her treatment included surgery followed by adjuvant chemotherapy and then additional surgeries to treat other organs where the cancer eventually spread, including to her liver and lungs. She also had kidney cancer unrelated to her colon cancer.
“I had my lung and liver resected and my kidney removed,” says Patella. “It was challenging but it’s important to stay hopeful. I even introduced a new puppy to our family on the advice of Dr. Mitchell, who said that it was important to keep living your life both when skies are blue and when a storm rolls through.”
Don’t Wait for a Colon Cancer Screening
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that adults get screened for colon cancer starting at age 45—five years earlier than previous recommendations. Colon cancer cases among younger adults have increased, which has prompted the change in recommendation.
Some people may need to be screened earlier if they have:
- Inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.
- A personal or family history of colorectal cancer or colorectal polyps.
- A genetic syndrome such as familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) or hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (Lynch syndrome).
It’s important not to delay screening if you are 45 years old or older, or if you meet other criteria in these screening guidelines.
“You have to make time for your health,” says Patella. “For most people, even those who have symptoms, it will be nothing. But you can’t take that chance with your life.”