Two-time colon cancer survivor says it’s all about prevention

Doctors say personalized cancer treatments now exist
By: Sara Seyydin Journal Staff Writer
-A +A
Debbie Height has had colon cancer twice, and in each case early detection saved her life. “Early detection helped me both times. If I wouldn’t have been as persistent with keeping up with my doctor’s appointments, it would have been a different story,” she said. March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month and Height and her doctors say aside from early detection, daily preventative measures can make all the difference in beating or warding off a cancer diagnosis. Other Auburn community members say they exercise and eat healthy as part of their preventative measures. Colonoscopy detects cancer early Height was diagnosed with colon cancer for the first time in 1999. Her doctor noticed she had abnormally low iron levels and had her undergo a colonoscopy to see if that may be one area where she was losing blood. During her colonoscopy cancerous polyps were discovered, which she had to have surgically removed. Afterward she went on chemotherapy and went almost 10 years without cancer again. After having several bowel-related problems, she finally was advised to have another colonoscopy. It was then, that her gastroenterologist Dr. Danny Yen, a Sutter Medical doctor, discovered her worst fear. “I’m never going to forget Dec. 1,” Height said. “He called back and said, ‘I’m sorry but it’s cancerous. We are going to have to move to take it out.” Determined to live for her children Bailey, 26, and Tyler, 23, and to see her granddaughter Riley Miller, 5, grow up, Height went into surgery after Christmas with a positive attitude. “Sometimes it’s scary. What’s that black demon you’ve got inside you? Then, how, and why?” Height said. “After Bailey had Riley that is really what helped to change things for me. She is my first grandchild and I want to be able to see her have her first baby. I want to keep positive.” Monday, Height was told her wound from the surgery is fully healed, all of the cancer has been removed and she won’t need chemotherapy. “Her cat Spike loves it, and I love it, too!” Riley said, when asked about how she feels about her grandmothers’ surgery going well. “We play roll the hula hoop!” Doctors’ opinions Dr. Danny Yen said stories like Height’s are a testament to the power of early detection and treatment by a team of specialists. He said the results of a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine provide evidence supporting the benefits of early screenings. “The earlier the diagnosis, that almost always converts into an excellent prognosis,” Yen said. “People who had a colonoscopy with polyp removal had a 53 percent less risk of colon cancer.” Yen said in another study released by the Center for Disease Control, researchers found that colon cancer decreased from 1980 to 2007. He said colonoscopies played a central role in lowering the incidences of cancer. The standard age for a first colonoscopy is 50 for most, and 45 for African Americans, he said, but could come sooner based on the presence of other symptoms. “Red flags would be unexplained weight loss, blood in stool, change in bowel movements,” Yen said. “If stool is of a different caliber, family history of colon cancer, colon polyps.” For someone with a family history of colon cancer, 10 years before a family member was diagnosed is the best time for a colonoscopy. Dr. Vijay Suhag, Sutter Medical Group hematologist-medical oncologist, said Height’s cancer was caught in stage 2 and hadn’t spread to her lymph nodes. He said doctors have started to offer more personalized cancer treatments in the event that a screening comes back with news of cancer. “Each individual cancer is different. One person’s colon cancer is different than another person’s colon cancer,” Suhag said. “We are looking at new ways of doing gene tests.” Those tests help doctors determine which treatment the cancer would respond best to based upon its mutations and which biomedical drugs it would respond to, if any. Even still, the earlier a cancer is detected, the better the outcome for patients, he said. “Really the most important thing is screening tests,” Suhag said. “They really can be lifesaving. It starts as a polyp, then turn cancerous.” He said eating more fruits and vegetables and keeping weight under control has been associated with a lower risk for colon cancer, also. Local cancer fund leader took preventative measures Betty Bennett is helping lead the fight against cancer locally by volunteering for the Auburn Community Cancer Endowment Fund, which funds cancer research at UC Davis. She recently had a preventative measure of her own. “Last week I had a melanoma ‘dug’ out of my right leg. In my opinion prevention is all about screening and living a healthy lifestyle to include exercise, wearing sunscreen, and a healthy diet,” Bennett said. “If I hadn't asked my doctor to check all my moles, my story may have turned out much worse, but because of the screening, the doctor caught it at its earliest stage.” Reach Sara Seyydin at, or follow her on Twitter @AJ_News.