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A Doctor—and a Life—Saved by a Colonoscopy

Colorectal Cancer Screening Expo to be Held March 30

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month—a national movement to increase awareness and education about colorectal cancer and to spread the message that colorectal cancer is preventable, treatable, and beatable if detected early.

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Stefan Holubar, MD, is a surgeon at DHMC, a member of the Cancer Center's Gastrointestinal Oncology Program—and also a colorectal cancer survivor. "I can say without any hesitation at all that a colonoscopy saved my life."

Norris Cotton Cancer Center will recognize the month with an informative Colorectal Cancer Screening Expo on March 30 at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center (DHMC) in Lebanon.

The Expo, which is open and free to the public, offers one-stop shopping for information, discussion with physicians, and scheduling for screenings. The Expo will run from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. in the Fuller Board Room off the South Mall adjacent to the Rotunda on the main floor of DHMC. A free snack lunch will be served.

Nationwide, more than 147,000 new cases of colorectal cancer are reported every year, with nearly 50,000 deaths reported per year, according to the American Cancer Society. Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the country after lung cancer. In New Hampshire alone, 730 new cases of colorectal cancer are reported each year.

For the Qualified: Free Education and Free Screenings

Those who are age 50 and older can benefit the most from a screening. There are different types of screenings available; patient and doctor can decide together which screening test is best for individuals.

Many insurance plans and Medicare help pay for screening tests. The New Hampshire Colorectal Cancer Screening Program provides free education on colorectal cancer screening, a free colonoscopy screening test and preparation, and free patient navigation services for those who meet financial and clinical requirements.

"A Colonoscopy Saved My Life"

Stefan Holubar, MD, a member of the surgery team at DHMC and also a member of the Cancer Center's Gastrointestinal Oncology Program, understands the benefits of colorectal cancer screening from a unique perspective: he is a colorectal cancer survivor himself.

When he was a young man still in medical school at University of Vermont, Stefan was on a ski vacation in Lake Placid, NY, with his brother and some ski buddies when he felt an acute pain in his lower abdomen. His brother rushed Stefan to the hospital in New York City, where an obstructing colon cancer was diagnosed by colonoscopy. Emergency surgery for stage III colon cancer on New Year's Eve removed 75 percent of his lower intestine. "I can say without any hesitation at all that a colonoscopy saved my life," he says.

Sympathy for Patients

"The surgery was a high price to pay, but it's given me both sympathy and empathy for my patients," Stefan continues. "I don't advertise that I'm a cancer survivor, but if I think they will benefit I will share my story with patients, and when I do what often happens is that they breathe a big sigh of relief. ‘Finally, here is someone who understands,' they seem to say. And I do understand."

Relief is an emotion he often hears when he meets with patients to discuss their prognosis and treatment. Patients connect with Stefan, and he connects with them, in the exclusive bond of shared experience: He is, indeed, exactly who his patients aspire to be—a survivor of colorectal cancer.

Stefan's illness and recovery give him a perspective on colorectal patients that few doctors share. "These tend to be chronic conditions, and a lot of patients with colorectal disease, including cancer, become professional patients," he says. "I'm a doctor who empathizes with his patients because I know just what they're going through. I went through it too."

A Colonoscopy Evangelist
Photo: Colorectal cancer usually begins with a polyp in the large intestine. A colonoscopy can find polyps and remove them before they become cancerous. (Photo by Stephen Holland, MD, Naperville Gastroenterology, Naperville, Ill.)

Colorectal cancer usually begins with a polyp in the large intestine. A colonoscopy can find polyps and remove them before they become cancerous. (Photo by Stephen Holland, MD, Naperville Gastroenterology, Naperville, Ill.)

In addition to the extraordinary connection with patients that Stefan's experience has given him, it's also made him an evangelist for colorectal cancer screening and prevention. "It's the third most common cancer and the second most lethal," he points out. "Yet it's preventable with screening." What concerns him, he says, is "that we're seeing a lot of advanced colorectal cancer in older patients." Most of those patients probably didn't have a screening when they were younger, and now their cancer has advanced to threatening stages.

It frustrates him, he admits, that current colorectal cancer screening rates are in the 25-30 percent range; he would like to see that increase to 50-60 percent or higher, the sooner the better. "If colorectal cancer is caught early enough, it can be treated and cured, even in older patients. Catching it early is what matters," he says. In his 20s when he was first diagnosed, Stefan has been cancer-free for 12 years.

"I Feel a Calling to This"

When considering specialties as a medical student, there was little question in which direction he would go. "Let's just say I was highly motivated to specialize in colorectal disease," he laughs. Now his training and his experience have merged to bring him full circle, to the other side of the examination table.

"When you're an intern, you know what you've been taught but you don't yet have the experience to fully appreciate what many patients are going through," he comments. "I was in the unique position of knowing what it was like for colorectal patients even when I was in med school." He pauses, reflects, and adds, "I feel a calling to this."

Colorectal Cancer Screening Expo

Friday, March 30, 2012
11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.

Main Entrance, South Mall, Fuller Board Room
Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Lebanon, NH

Learn about the risks for colon cancer:

  • Find out how colon cancer can be screened and cured
  • Learn about healthy lifestyle and prevention techniques
  • Speak with specialized physicians regarding risks and benefits
  • Perform a colonoscopy on a model colon
  • Watch videos

 

March 12, 2012