Colonoscopy and Surgery Lower Cancer Risk for East Tennessee Retiree

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Dale Johnson is retired and living in Lenoir City. During a routine colonoscopy through his primary care physician, several polyps were discovered in his colon. Fortunately, the polyps were benign, meaning they were not cancerous. To be safe, Johnson underwent surgery to remove them and is thankful for the compassionate and expert care he received at Covenant Health Fort Sanders Regional.

What is a Colonoscopy?

A colonoscopy is a procedure where the provider uses a long lighted tube to look at the rectum and the entire colon with a small video camera. The provider looks for polyps or other abnormal areas and can remove them for further testing. A colonoscopy usually requires sedation.

What is a Polyp?

Polyps are growths made up of fleshy clumps of tissue that form on the inner lining of the colon or rectum. Small polyps are rarely cancerous, but over time, the cells in some polyp types can change and become cancer. The longer a polyp is there and the more it grows, the more likely it is to become cancerous.

When Polyps are Found

Johnson has had regular colonoscopy screenings every five years since the age of 50, but nothing has been discovered before.

This time, his doctor discovered four polyps that needed to be removed. Colonoscopies are both diagnostic and interventional, so the doctor removed three of the polys during the procedure. A biopsy revealed Johnson’s growths were not cancerous, which was good news. However, he wasn’t out of the woods yet.

One of Johnson’s polyps required a more extensive surgery, so he was referred to Fort Sanders Regional. There, he met colorectal surgeon Sung Lee, MD.

Sidestepping Cancer

“He told me I’d need surgery and that the growth needed to come out, whether it was cancerous or not,” Johnson recalls.

“This surgical procedure was recommended to make sure there were no cancerous cells underneath,” Dr. Lee says.

“Most colorectal cancers start as polyps. These are growths caused by changes in the cells that line the inside of the colon or rectum,” he explains. “Over time, the polyps can become cancerous. Finding and removing polyps while they’re small may stop cancer from ever forming.”

Colorectal cancers most often start when cells in a polyp start growing abnormally. As a cancerous tumor grows, it can invade the deeper layers of the colon or rectal wall. Over time, the cancer can grow beyond the colon or rectum and into nearby organs or lymph nodes and other parts of the body. Regular screenings can prevent cancer from forming or detect it in its early stages.

Robotic-Assisted Surgery at Fort Sanders Regional

In May 2023, Johnson underwent a robotic-assisted colectomy to remove a polyp that was approximately 20 mm in size. He received a few small incisions on the right side of his abdomen and spent one night in the hospital.

The procedure also included a resection, which removed 29 cm of Johnson’s colon. After the resection, the remaining ends were connected for regular bowel function.

“Using robot-guided technology, I go in with an instrument and make only a few incisions. Patients do very well with this minimally invasive technique,” Dr. Lee says. “No big incisions are needed, and I do everything on the inside. The risk of complications, bleeding, and developing a hernia is much lower; the hospital stay is shorter, and often the patient has less pain during recovery.”

“I met Dr. Lee several times before the surgery,” Johnson says. “He told me about the risks of surgery and said they were going to operate as if [the polyp] were cancerous, and that he’d take enough out so it likely wouldn’t show up later.”

Johnson had no complications or issues during recovery. “I liked Dr. Lee a lot – he explained everything very well,” he says. “I was treated extremely well, and all the nurses and everyone at the hospital were great.”

“He did great”, says Dr. Lee. “When a patient is doing well, I let them go home as soon as possible. To be cleared, they must be able to eat and drink without nausea or vomiting. I check on their pain level and bowel function before they go home.”

After Surgery — Recovered and Feeling Great

Johnson is feeling great and in good health. He enjoys spending time with his children and grandchildren and attending their ball games. He is following up with his primary care provider for his next colonoscopy to stay on top of any future issues.

“I’m 74, and I got to take care of what I got left,” he says with a laugh. “I had my appendix out when I was 15, and boy, that left a big scar. These are tiny scars you wouldn’t even notice.” He says he would heartily recommend Dr. Lee and Fort Sanders Regional to anyone who needs surgery or to get any concerns checked out.

Importance of Colorectal Screenings

According to Dr. Lee, polyps in the colorectal area are very common. “Most Americans have them. That’s why we recommend screening colonoscopies so we can keep watch or remove any cell tissue before it becomes a problem. Most of the time, the polyps can be removed during your colonoscopy, and you don’t need another surgery.”

Many people do not show any symptoms of colon polyps until they become very large. This may cause bleeding, changes in bowel habits, blood in the stool, or abdominal pain. It’s important to report any of these symptoms to a physician to determine next steps.

The American Cancer Society and U.S. Preventive Services Task Force advise people at average risk for colorectal cancer to start screening at age 45.

Dr. Lee says screenings are recommended every 10 years or sooner, depending on each individual’s risk for colorectal cancer. “If polyps are present, it could be every five years. If you have multiple polyps, you may be asked to repeat the test every year, every three years, or even every six months.”

To find a doctor near you or learn more about our surgical services at Fort Sanders Regional, visit our website.

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