Kelly Whiteley walked into his first-ever colonoscopy symptom-free. He never imagined he would soon be diagnosed with 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.
“The diagnosis was a shock,” Kelly said. “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 off the yearly visit, 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, Kelly didn’t hesitate.
“I said, ‘sign me up’ because I had to get it done or my wife would have yelled at me,” Kelly joked.
The doctor’s recommendation to Kelly, who was 48 at the time, reflected a new colonoscopy screening guideline that came out in 2021. Organizations including the American Cancer Society (ACS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated that people at average risk for colorectal cancer should start screening at age 45 versus age 50, the previous recommended age. Under the old screening guideline, Kelly’s rectal cancer likely would have gone undetected.
The first hours and days of absorbing the diagnosis were surreal for Kelly and his family.
“I was wondering what my chances of survival were,” Kelly remembered. “I was thinking about the next steps and preparing.”
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 said he’s grateful for the aggressive and decisive approach his doctors have taken.
“The doctors have been phenomenal,” he said. “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,” said Kelly. “They truly know and understand what people are going through.”
Beyond his care team, Kelly said his circle of support and church get him through the tough times.
“My wife has been my rock through this whole process,” said Kelly. “When you’re dealing with bad news, it helps to know that you are loved by others. It’s makes a difference. I’m fortunate and 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 said he’s persuaded at least 20 to 25 people to have a colonoscopy.
“It’s an easy process,” he said. “Everyone makes it sound like a difficult screening, but it’s not. You’ve just got to get it done. It’s a process that you should go through to help prevent cancer.”
Dr. Shaneli Fernando, a radiation oncologist at ThedaCare Cancer Care, echoed this encouragement.
“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 said.
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 said. 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 number two cancer killer but is also the number one 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,” said Dr. Fernando. “It can be a precancerous polyp, and during the procedure, that can be removed. That can help reduce the risk of colon cancer long term. Patients are under sedation, so they shouldn’t feel pain, even with polyp removal.”
Kelly said 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, he said he’ll most likely live with cancer for the rest of his life, but with treatment, he’s found hope.
“I want to live a normal life, and I want to spend time with my wife and travel,” he said. “My kids will be going to college soon, and I want to be there when they get married. I keep those things in mind as I treat my cancer.”
ThedaCare has made it easier than ever for patients to request a colonoscopy appointment. For more information about scheduling an appointment for a colonoscopy, visit thedacare.org/services/cancer-and-blood-disorders/screenings-prevention/colonoscopy-screening/.
For more than 110 years, ThedaCare® has been committed to improving the health and well-being of the communities it serves in Northeast and Central Wisconsin. The organization delivers care to more than 600,000 residents in 17 counties and employs approximately 7,000 health care professionals. ThedaCare has 180 points of care, including eight hospitals. As an organization committed to being a leader in Population Health, team members are dedicated to empowering people to live their unique, best lives. ThedaCare also partners with communities to understand needs, finding solutions together, and encouraging health awareness and action. ThedaCare is the first in Wisconsin to be a Mayo Clinic Care Network Member, giving specialists the ability to consult with Mayo Clinic experts about a patient’s care. ThedaCare is proud to partner with Children’s Wisconsin and Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin health network to enhance convenient access to the most advanced levels of specialty care. ThedaCare is a not-for-profit health system with a level II trauma center, comprehensive cancer treatment, stroke and cardiac programs, as well as primary care.
For more information, visit thedacare.org or follow ThedaCare on social media. Members of the media should call Cassandra Wallace, Public and Media Relations Consultant at 920.442.0328 or the ThedaCare Regional Medical Center-Neenah switchboard at 920.729.3100 and ask for the marketing person on call.