Skip to main content

Cancer care: Colon cancer

Skip section navigation

Colon cancer patient stories

Our patients and their stories

These stories paint a picture of the expert medical care and excellent experience we provide to our patients and their families.

Karen's colon cancer story

No family history of colon cancer: Karen's story

Karen Sonnenberg had no worries when she scheduled a colonoscopy last March. But this time, her doctor found a polyp. A few days later, she learned it was cancer. That was a shock. “I have no cancer history at all in my family,” she said.

Ruth speaks about colon cancer screening

Saved by colon cancer screening: Ruth's story

In 1999, Ruth Edstrom got the news that changed her life. She had stage 4 colon cancer. Today she says, "The most important thing is for people to go get screened."

No family history of colon cancer: Karen's story

Karen Sonnenberg pets her dog Jack

Karen Sonnenberg had no worries when she scheduled a colonoscopy last March. Her first colonoscopy had been done when she was 50, 10 years ago. “It all went so smoothly. It was not a big deal at all,” she said.

But this time, her doctor found a polyp. A few days later, she learned it was cancer. That was a shock. “I have no cancer history at all in my family,” she said.

Fortunately for Sonnenberg, she had followed current colon cancer screening guidelines — a colonoscopy every 10 years after age 50. After she had colon surgery at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in April, doctors were able to determine that the cancer had not spread beyond the colon and she required no further treatment.

Screening is key

“Colon cancer screening is extremely important because early detection is the key to curing the disease,” said Lawrence Burgart, MD, pathologist and chairman, Oncology Clinical Service Line Gastrointestinal Program Committee, Allina Health.

In fact, the number of colon cancer deaths in the United States is dropping, and experts say that one reason is an increased emphasis on screening. But a significant number of people still are not being screened.

Allina Health is making great strides to change this. Clinic providers discuss colon cancer with patients as part of their regular clinic visits and provide screening information to those who are due. As a result, the percentage of clinic patients who are up to date on colon cancer screening rose from 56.8 percent in 2011 to 75.5 percent in 2013.

“The value of colon cancer screening is well-supported by the evidence,” said Rod Christensen, MD, chief medical officer, Allina Health clinics. “We want to do all we can to help people make informed decisions about their health, so this is just doing our part to remind our patients and make it easy for them to follow up.”

Screening methods

There are several ways to screen for colon cancer. The best method for you may depend on cost, personal preference and medical history. Your health care provider can help you decide.

While colonoscopy is the method most often associated with colon cancer screening, recent improvements in fecal occult blood testing have made it a reasonable choice for many patients, especially if insurance does not cover screening colonoscopy. The test determines if there is blood hidden in the stool, which can be a sign of polyps or cancer. “It has become much more sensitive, and it no longer requires that patients avoid red meat and other foods before taking the test,” said Burgart.

Treating colon cancer

If colon cancer is diagnosed, treatment may include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

Allina Health has all of the specialists and resources needed for treatment, support and rehabilitation. At Allina Health hospitals, patients can be assured of timely follow-up and evidence-based care. Each patient’s case is handled by a team of experts, including surgeons, pathologists, oncologists and radiologists.

Cancer care coordinators are also part of the team. The coordinator serves as the patient’s single point of contact throughout treatment and follow-up care. “We help to coordinate tests and appointments, introduce patients to resources and provide ongoing support and education,” said Dustin Powers, RN, cancer care coordinator, Colorectal Cancer Program, Virginia Piper Cancer Institute® — Abbott Northwestern Hospital.

Reducing your risk

While having a family history of colon cancer increases your risk for the disease, 70 percent of people diagnosed have no family history. In fact, one of the biggest risk factors is age — most cases occur in people older than age 50.

Lifestyle factors also play a role. “Smoking, obesity, diets that are high in fat and red meat, and heavy alcohol consumption have all been linked to colon cancers,” said Christina Pieper-Bigelow, MD, a gastroenterologist at Allina Health Clinic – Hastings. “Many of the recommendations that reduce risk for other diseases also apply to colon cancer: Eat more fruits and vegetables, get regular exercise and don’t smoke.”

But anyone can get colon cancer. Recalling the day that she learned her cancer had not spread, Sonnenberg said, “I felt really lucky. There is no reason you should put off colon cancer screening.”

Learn more about...


Source: Abbott Northwestern Hospital, Healthy Communities Magazine, winter 2014
Reviewed by: Lawrence Burgart, MD, pathologist and chairman, Oncology Clinical Service Line Gastrointestinal Program Committee, Allina Health; Rod Christensen, MD, chief medical officer, Allina Health clinics; Dustin Powers, RN, cancer care coordinator, Colorectal Cancer Program, Virginia Piper Cancer Institute® — Abbott Northwestern Hospital; Christina Pieper-Bigelow, MD, a gastroenterologist at Allina Health Clinic – Hastings
First Published: 11/07/2013
Last Reviewed: 11/07/2013

Saved by colon cancer screening: Ruth's story

Ruth Edstrom speaks with another woman about colon cancer screening

In November 1999, Ruth Edstrom got the news that changed her life. She had stage 4 colon cancer, and it had spread to her liver.

The news overshadowed an otherwise happy life. Edstrom, then 50, had a new husband, a new grandchild, and a job she loved at a Minneapolis advertising agency.

A history of digestive problems

Several years before her colon cancer diagnosis, Edstrom began having digestive problems – bloating, a change in bowel habits and pain after eating.

Two years before her diagnosis, she had even had a sigmoidoscopy and a barium enema – two tests used to screen for colon cancer. At the time, doctors believed she had irritable bowel syndrome.

Colonoscopy shows cancer

In 1999, Edstrom began to have rectal bleeding along with her other symptoms. A colonoscopy showed cancer.

A few days later, she went to Abbott Northwestern Hospital for surgery to remove the cancerous section of her intestine. That's when doctors found that the cancer had also spread to her liver.

"Fortunately, the cancer on my liver was in a place that was operable," says Edstrom.

Timothy Sielaff, MD, PhD, president of the Virginia Piper Cancer Institute® and a liver/pancreatic surgeon performed the liver surgery. After this, Edstrom went to Minnesota Oncology for seven cycles of chemotherapy.

Colon cancer risk factors

The average American woman has a 1 in 20 chance of getting colon and rectal cancer. Men have a 1 in 18 chance.

You may be at risk of getting colon cancer if you have:

Edstrom knew that an uncle died of colon cancer in his 70s, but she was not aware of any other risk factors.

Screenings save lives

Starting at age 50, people who have no risk factors for colon cancer should have regular colon cancer screenings. Individuals at higher risk should begin earlier.

"While colon cancer is rare in people under 40, it's very common after age 50," says Robert McCabe, MD. "The goal of screening is to find the cancer early so it can be cured with surgery."

McCabe encourages people of all ages to see their doctor if they notice these signs of colon cancer:

  • any change in bowel habits
  • persistent discomfort or bloating in the lower abdomen
  • rectal bleeding.

"The most important thing is for people to go get screened," says Edstrom.

Although she's been cancer-free for years, Edstrom continues to get regular colon cancer screenings. "This has changed my life in ways I could not have imagined. I look at every day as a miracle."

Learn more about...


Source: Abbott Northwestern Hospital, Healthy Communities Magazine, spring 2002; Robert McCabe, MD, Minnesota Gastroenterology; American Cancer Society, Cancer Statistics 2009 Presentation
Reviewed by: Timothy Sielaff, MD, PhD, FACS, president, Virginia Piper Cancer Institute®
First Published: 08/17/2009
Last Reviewed: 08/17/2009