“I delayed having my first colonoscopy because of COVID and work,” says Michael, a vegetarian who works out six days a week. “But I am proof that you shouldn’t put it off, especially now that the age to start screening has dropped to 45.”
Two years ago Michael started experiencing abdominal pain. It subsided, so he chalked it up to work-related stress. A year and a half later, it returned. Unable to see his usual Tryon primary care physician Dr. Caroline Pierce, he scheduled an appointment with her partner Dr. Jennifer Womack, who worked to triage the issue through blood work and a scan that showed his colon was inflamed. In 2022, just two weeks shy of a trip to Italy, the pain came back much worse.
Dr. Womack scheduled Michael for a colonoscopy, but before it was time for the appointment, he started having acute pain and vomiting. She sent him to the ER, where he eventually received his life-changing diagnosis.
“The doctor came into the room and said, ‘I have some bad news,’” recalls Michael. He called his partner, Ivey, who had gone home to let the dog out. “With Ivey on speakerphone, the doctor told me there was a blockage in my colon and she believed it to be cancer.”
The surgical team removed approximately 12 inches of Michael’s colon, which had grown through and outside the colon wall, but thankfully did not spread to his other organs or lymph nodes. The tumor had good margins, meaning the tissue around it was healthy and clear of cancerous cells. They rated his cancer at stage 2 high risk, and gave him the option of oral chemotherapy as a preventive measure, which he completed in February 2023.
“Michael did the right thing when he immediately reached out to his care team to address the pain he was having,” says Dr. Womack, who adds that his treatment and recovery were positively impacted by his healthy lifestyle. “While early detection with screening colonoscopies is ideal to prevent colorectal cancer, taking your symptoms seriously is critical to catching cancer early when it does happen.”
Michael’s battle with colon cancer is not his first brush with a potentially fatal disease.
“Ten years ago, as I was eating lunch at a friend’s house, I went into cardiac arrest,” says Michael. A 911 operator talked Michael’s friend and Ivey through CPR, saving Michael’s life. “I woke up in a Rock Hill hospital with a defibrillator inside my chest.”
Michael was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). According to the American Heart Association, HCM is most often the result of abnormal genes in the heart muscle that cause the walls of a chamber to become thicker than normal. Because Michael is at higher risk for ventricular fibrillation, his heart rate must be continuously monitored, and if it stops, his heart must be jump-started by a defibrillator device permanently affixed inside his chest. Though he has not had any more instances of arrhythmia or cardiac arrest, Michael has had multiple surgeries to move and replace the leads in his defibrillator, with an upcoming surgery in March to replace the lead and relocate the device.
For Michael, managing his HCM diagnosis was easier than colon cancer, because he was younger and already aware of his family’s history of heart disease. His surprising colon cancer diagnosis has caused him to develop anxiety, even leading to a panic attack in his oncologist’s office. He will have to have regular blood work and a yearly CT scan to screen for potential cancer recurrence, an ever present worry for him and Ivey. However, Michael is determined to live his life fully and without fear.
Michael says surviving cancer has spotlighted the importance of balance, and making time for the important people (and Macy, their Boxer) in his life. After 18 years together, Michael and Ivey are engaged and planning an intimate wedding ceremony at their home. They look forward to a long and healthy life together with plenty of time to reschedule that trip to Italy.