It was a Sunday morning – July 10, 2016 – when Jina Tolle woke up to a sharp pain under her right rib cage. She tried to go about her normal routine … but the pain persisted, and was not going away.
“I had felt the pain before, and had discussed it with several friends,” Tolle says. “They ‘diagnosed’ it as probably a bad gall bladder, so I didn’t think much about it. On that Sunday morning, however, the pain would not ease. I told my husband I needed to go to the emergency room.”
High liver enzyme counts in her blood work led to an ultrasound on her liver, followed by a CT scan. “I walked into the ER at noon, a 40-year-old stay-at-home mom who had a stomachache,” Tolle says. “I walked out at 4 p.m. with a stage four cancer diagnosis.
“Nine days after my ER visit, eight inches and an orange-sized tumor were removed from my colon. But my liver turned out the be the most involved, consumed by five tumors. The largest one was the size of a football.”
Nearly three years later, Tolle has undergone seven surgeries and 46 rounds of chemotherapy. “I have been blessed with an incredible medical team, that, luckily, are fighting for me to be here on this earth,” she says. “We continue making progress on the masses in my liver, and currently my colon is clear. I will be on chemo the rest of my life. And I hope that’s a long, long time.”
March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and Oklahoma ranks as one of the highest states in the nation regarding colorectal cancer and death rates.
“In 2018, deaths from colorectal cancer exceeded 50,000 (in the U.S.),” says Janet Pulliam, Senior Manager for Hospital Systems for the Oklahoma American Cancer Society. “In Oklahoma, more than 19,000 people were diagnosed and over 1,600 died from colorectal cancer just last year. The real tragedy is that many of these cancer cases and cancer deaths occur needlessly, as they could be prevented if more people took advantage of colorectal cancer screening.”
When colorectal cancer is diagnosed at the localized state, Pulliam said the five-year survival rate is 90 percent, while many people live much longer than that – and in fact, many are cured.
“Unfortunately, only 39 percent of cases are diagnosed at this localized stage,” she says. “If the cancer is not detected until late stage, the five-year survival rate drops to 14 percent.”
Oklahoma ranks 50th in the nation regarding colorectal cancer screening, according to Dr. Christian Ellis, a surgical oncologist at Mercy Hospital in Oklahoma City.
“Screening for colorectal cancer is an essential tool to prevent and detect colon cancer earlier,” he says, “which could translate into saving lives for Oklahomans.”
Ellis said if a person has a relative who has been diagnosed with colorectal cancer or advanced polyps, they should begin screening at age 40, or 10 years before the earliest diagnosis of colorectal cancer in their relative. “Other indications for screening earlier would be a personal history of inflammatory bowel disease or an inherited family disease such as ‘Lynch Syndrome,’” he says. “Your healthcare provider can help you decide if you should begin screening at an earlier age.”
A colonoscopy is the gold standard for screening, Ellis said, but the best way to determine the right test for you is to talk to your physician.
“Colorectal cancer is a preventable disease, but only if there is early detection and treatment,” he says. “I want to encourage you to exercise, eat nutritional foods, maintain a healthy weight and of course, avoid tobacco and other substances that can increase your risk for cancer. As a board member of the Oklahoma American Cancer Society, I speak for its members by expressing our desire for you and your family to live a healthy and cancer-free life.”