Beating Stage 4 Colon Cancer with Trust, Treatment and Community

March 31, 2017 1:00 PM

A stage 4 colon cancer patient shares his journey to becoming cancer-free. He credits his health to a comprehensive team approach from his Michigan Medicine doctors.

When Phil Scamihorn was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2012, a tumor blocked about 50 percent of his colon. He hoped that surgery would remove it with clear margins, meaning the entire growth — and the cancer contained within — was taken out.

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But even after surgery, Scamihorn’s bloodwork showed an elevated carcinoembryonic antigen. The CEA is a protein in the blood used to assess colon cancer activity.

That led doctors to discover a small nodule on the patient’s lung. His colon cancer had spread.

Soon after receiving the news, Scamihorn shared his emotions through a blog.

“Of course, I don’t know the end of my story at this point, but I will start by writing the end anyway,” he wrote. “By the grace of God and the skilled hands of many doctors and surgeons, Philip is now NED (no evidence of disease) for five years, six years, seven, 10, 15 …”

It was an ambitious prediction, but he had a lot to live for — including a long career in software development and his wife, Connie, whom he married in 2009, and their combined five children.

It would also require a skilled medical team and a personalized approach.

"There are many studies on colorectal cancer, and it’s important we utilize the available data and then make individual treatment recommendations for each patient."
John C. Krauss, M.D.

Trusting a hunch

An initial consultation didn’t sit well with Scamihorn. He didn’t like that his doctors in Battle Creek, Michigan, cracked open a book and read what his treatment plan should be.

At Scamihorn’s job directing a team of business intelligence developers at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, data drove the decision-making.

SEE ALSO: Should Young People Get a Colon Cancer Screening? It Depends on Their Risk

Scamihorn decided to do some research of his own by getting a second opinion from the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center, a move that quickly validated his intuition.

“The Michigan oncologist was very informed. He drew pictures of the process of cancer and explained why certain chemotherapies would be tried. I thought he was very optimistic in the approach they were going to take,” Scamihorn says. “The bottom line is the U-M oncologist won our confidence and trust.”

Most important, the doctor told him that stage 4 colon cancer can be cured.

Perhaps Scamihorn’s initial blog prediction could be reality.

“The University of Michigan is a founding member of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, which continuously updates guidelines consolidating all of the known treatment information regarding treatment of colon cancer,” says Scamihorn’s oncologist, John C. Krauss, M.D. “There are many studies on colorectal cancer, and it’s important we utilize the available data and then make individual treatment recommendations for each patient.”

Trusted experts

After six surgeries and several rounds of chemotherapy, Scamihorn credits his team of doctors, including Krauss and surgeon James A. Knol, M.D., for bringing him into remission.

He has been cancer-free for two years.

Scamihorn says his doctors’ combined knowledge brought him to a major turning point in his road to becoming cancer-free.

In response to a new tumor growth in Scamihorn’s liver, for instance, Krauss ordered aggressive chemotherapy to prove to Knol that another surgery was worth it.

Notes Krauss: “Having the chemo first proved Phil’s disease was responsive to it. So if any cancer remained after this surgery, it could be treated with chemo after to eradicate it.”

The initial chemotherapy brought Scamihorn’s CEA from 18 to 7, showing its effectiveness. The surgery brought the CEA back to normal range.

In stage 4 colon cancer, only about 5 to 10 percent of patients can discontinue maintenance therapy. Scamihorn was prescribed one year of maintenance therapy to ensure there was no evidence of disease.

Part of trusting his care team included learning to control the things he could and leaving the rest to his doctors. He ate a healthy diet, took vitamins and followed doctors’ orders. And Scamihorn never missed an appointment, even when his final chemotherapy treatment coincided with a major snowstorm.

Scamihorn, who has been cancer-free for two years.

Trust in community

Early in his cancer journey, Scamihorn decided to blog to keep friends and loved ones informed of his progress.

SEE ALSO: Collecting a Family’s Cancer History: What You Should Ask

Blogging, he says, revealed the power of a supportive community — benefits that came as word spread about the blog in the author’s small town of Marshall, Michigan.

“The town was very helpful. I believe it takes a village,” he says. “For example, if my child’s teacher knows what’s going on, she can offer better support at school.”

Now that he is cancer-free, Scamihorn frequently offers support to patients newly diagnosed with colorectal cancer. He is a member of the online support community Cancer Survivors Network, where he assures participants that it is possible to have successful treatment for stage 4 cancer.

“There are many patients in the online support community who have had five years without cancer,” says Scamihorn, now 53. “I also encourage people to find a doctor they trust, someone they’re comfortable with, and let them do their job.”

For those friends and loved ones without cancer, he can’t say enough about following recommendations for screening and early prevention. Colonoscopy can prevent cancer if precancerous polyps are discovered and removed. And it is easier to treat cancer if detected early.

Because Scamihorn was diagnosed at age 47, his children will be screened 10 years earlier, at age 37.

For questions about colorectal cancer screening, call the Cancer AnswerLine at 800-865-1125.