If the colonoscopy screening age hadn’t changed from 50 to 45, ThedaCare patient Kelly Whiteley’s rectal cancer likely would have gone undetected. Thanks to the new guideline, doctors caught his cancer, and he’s undergoing treatment.
Kelly had no symptoms when he walked into his first-ever colonoscopy. He was stunned to learn he had stage 4 rectal cancer.
Prior to that fateful day in October 2022, Kelly, his wife, Lexi, and their two teenage sons lived a typical life. They love living in their hometown of New London, camping and spending time outdoors together. Kelly, who works as an outside salesman for a Wisconsin firm selling interior and exterior doors and trim, relishes watching his sons excel in band and track, respectively.
“It was a shock,” he says. “When the doctor came in and said, ‘you have cancer,’ my wife and I looked at each other and said, ‘What are you talking about?’”
A few weeks before his colonoscopy, Kelly had gone to his doctor for a wellness visit. He admits that he’d been putting it off, and making the appointment took a little prodding from Lexi, who’s a nurse. When his doctor mentioned that it was time for him to have a colonoscopy, he didn’t hesitate.
“I said, ‘sign me up’ because I had to get it done or my wife would have yelled at me,” Kelly jokes.
The doctor’s recommendation to Kelly, who was 48 at the time, reflected the new colonoscopy screening guideline that came out in 2021. Organizations including the American Cancer Society and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that people at average risk for colorectal cancer should start screening at age 45 versus age 50, the previous recommended age.
“It could have spread too much to be able to do anything,” he says.
The first hours and days of absorbing the diagnosis were surreal for Kelly and his family.
“What goes through your head is, what are your chances for survival? What are the next steps?” he says.
The same day Kelly received the news, he had an MRI. Soon after that, he had CT and PET scans, where doctors discovered that the cancer had spread to his liver and lungs. He then had a port put in for chemotherapy.
Kelly says he’s grateful for the aggressive and decisive approach his care team has taken.
“The doctors have been phenomenal,” he says. “They were straight to the point. ‘This is what we’re doing. This is what our goal is.’ That’s what I prefer, not to dance around it.”
After completing eight rounds of chemotherapy, Kelly’s tumor has shrunk to half of its original size. Next, he’ll undergo radiation. The goal is to get the tumor small enough for doctors to remove it surgically.
“[The entire Cancer Care team] makes it as positive and as uplifting as they possibly can, knowing what people are going through,” Kelly says of his experience.
Beyond his care team, Kelly says his circle of support, strong faith and church get him through the tough times.
“It’s bad news, yes, but when you’re loved by other people, that’s what makes a difference,” he says. “My wife has been my rock through this whole process. I’m fortunate. I’m blessed.”
Spreading the Word
As Kelly prepares for what’s ahead, he’s also focused on using his experience to help spread awareness of colorectal cancer. He shares his story openly and honestly and says he’s persuaded at least 20 to 25 people to have a colonoscopy.
“It’s an easy process. Everyone makes it sound like it’s bad, but it’s not. You’ve just got to get it done,” he says. “It’s a process that you should go through to make sure that you don’t have what I have.”
Dr. Shaneli Fernando, a radiation oncologist at ThedaCare Cancer Care, echoes this.
“I think if our patients know that early detection and screening really does lead to a better outcome down the road, a lot of the fears and anxieties surrounding the procedure will melt away,” she says.
The guideline to begin screening at 45 is still relatively new, and it’s taking time to spread the word to the public, Dr. Fernando says. Primary care providers are taking the lead in sharing the guidance with people — another reason it’s important to stay on top of routine wellness visits.
During a colonoscopy, the doctor looks for changes — such as swollen, irritated tissues, polyps or cancer — in the colon and rectum. Colorectal cancer is the No. 2 cancer killer but is also the No. 1 most preventable cancer. When colorectal cancer is found at an early stage, before it has spread, it has a five-year survival rate of about 90%.
“Oftentimes, it’s not a cancer that’s found. It can be a precancerous polyp, and during the procedure, that can be removed. That can reduce the risk of colon cancer long term,” Dr. Fernando says. “Patients are under sedation, so they shouldn’t feel pain, even with polyp removal.”
Kelly says he often tells others that if he hadn’t gotten a colonoscopy, he never would have known he had cancer, and he would have lost precious time to treat the disease.
As for the future, Kelly says he’ll most likely live with cancer for the rest of his life, but with treatment, he’s found hope.
“I see, hopefully, getting back to somewhat of a normal life once they get this cancer out of me,” he says. “I want to live a normal life, and I want to spend time with my wife and travel. My kids have college coming up, and I want to be there when they get married.”