The Cancer Screening She Kept Putting Off Saved Her Life

By Meredith Whittemore

Brenda Renner knew she was supposed to undergo a screening colonoscopy. She was 66 years old after all, older than the recommended age to begin screening, but had been putting it off, not wanting to undergo what she believed would be an uncomfortable ordeal.

“Dr. Coonfield asked if I wanted to schedule one and I said nope!” remembered Renner, laughing at herself.

Her primary care physician, Dr. Kimberly Coonfield, MD, an internist with Memorial Hermann Medical Group, wasn’t giving up. She suggested an at-home test, called a fecal immunochemical test (FIT), which would allow Renner to send in a fecal sample to be tested for blood, which can be an early sign of cancer. Brenda agreed, but it still took several months for her to get around to completing the test.

“I had been helping an ill aunt and I basically forgot to do it. Dr. Coonfield’s nurse called to remind me and I’m glad she did,” Renner said.

Renner’s test came back positive, meaning she would need to have a colonoscopy. Gastroenterologist, Dr. Robin Ferguson, MD, came back with news she didn’t expect.

Diagnosed with Cancer

“She told me I had a large malignant tumor and would need additional testing and possibly surgery. You could’ve picked me up off the floor. When you hear the word cancer, you freak. My daughter had just gotten pregnant after a round of IVF and I just prayed to god that I would see my first grandbaby born,” Renner said.

Renner underwent a chest X-ray and MRI, where a second tumor was found, this one in her lung. Renner would need to undergo surgery to remove the tumor in her lung as well as the tumor in her colon.

“My doctors moved mountains for me to make sure I had the appointments I needed when I needed them.  They coordinated with each other; I really felt a lot of personal care,” Renner said.

A Very Lucky Lady

Colorectal surgeon Dr. Amit Agarwal, MD, removed the tumor in Renner’s colon and thoracic surgeon Dr. Luis Echeverri, MD, removed the tumor in her lung. Dr. Agarwal says Renner should consider herself a very lucky lady.

“Brenda’s cancers were not related, and if it hadn’t been for finding the colon cancer, she may not have discovered the lung cancer until it was too late,” said Dr. Agarwal, who is also an assistant professor at McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth).

Dr. Agarwal says a colonoscopy is the gold standard for colon cancer screening, but for those who don’t want to undergo the screening for whatever reason, a FIT test is an option.

“There are some downsides to the FIT test, including a higher rate of false positives, meaning the test may lead your physician to think you have cancer when you don’t. It is also something patients need to do every year, unlike a colonoscopy that can typically be done once every 10 years. However, some screening is better than no screening,” Dr. Agarwal said.

Starting Colon Cancer Screenings at Age 45

The American Cancer Society recently updated its recommendation, lowering the age to begin colon cancer screening to 45 years old for average risk patients. However, not all insurance providers have caught up with that recommendation and patients are urged to check with their insurance about their coverage.

“We are finding colon cancer in younger and younger patients,” Dr. Agarwal said. “While researchers have not pinpointed an exact cause for that, we do believe there is some connection to changes in lifestyle and food behaviors in the younger population.”

Dr. Agarwal encourages people to maintain a healthy diet, including lots of fruits and vegetables, getting regular exercise, and quitting smoking.

An Advocate for Colon Cancer Screening

Renner says her recovery was a breeze.

“I only needed minimal pain medication. I listened to the clear instructions given to me for my recovery and I had no complications. I came back to Dr. Agarwal’s office, walked in with full makeup on, and he was shocked to see how well I was doing,” Renner said.

Brenda now encourages her friends and family to undergo colon cancer screening.

“I’m not glad it happened to me but I’m thankful for the opportunities it presented. We don’t know what’s lurking in our bodies unless we check, and I will forever tell everyone how important these tests are,” Renner said.

Memorial Hermann Cancer Centers provide the entire continuum of cancer care, including screening, diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation. Learn more about colorectal cancer or schedule a colon cancer screening.

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