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NEWS | March 19, 2013

Don’t roll the dice: A cancer survival story

By Caryn Schroeder Health Net Federal Services

Editor's Note: March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. As part of its month-long awareness campaign, staff at Health Net Federal Services, LLC, the managed care support contract for the TRICARE North Region, spoke with a U.S. Air Force officer about his recent colon cancer diagnosis.

For U.S. Air Force Col Wayne Monteith, Department of Defense Executive Agent for Space Staff deputy director, work came first. He was responsible for more than 5,000 people and worldwide operations; he considered his job a priority above routine health care.

In December 2010, as commander of the 50th Space Wing in Schriever Air Force Base, Colo. - at the insistence of his secretary who rescheduled the appointment three times -Monteith had his first colonoscopy at age 51, almost a year after his doctor's initial recommendation. One reason for the delay was that Monteith felt he didn't need one.

"We are raised in our careers with a warrior ethos, to not complain and not get sick," he said. "For me, having rarely been sick, I construed it as a sign of weakness."

He's not alone. Health Net Federal Services' goal is to increase the number of beneficiaries in the TRICARE North Region who obtain the recommended colorectal cancer screenings to save lives.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists colorectal cancer as the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States among cancers affecting men and women. Colorectal cancer screenings can, in many cases, prevent colon and rectal cancers, by finding polyps before they turn cancerous.

Heading to his appointment, Monteith felt he was in great health. He had been a competitive runner and his physical fitness score put him in the top one percent of the Air Force. It wasn't until the physician assistant came to speak with him after his colonoscopy and started crying, that he realized something was wrong.

"My doctor informed me I had an aggressive tumor that could kill me if not removed," said Monteith. "I'm not sure if it sunk in immediately, but I certainly knew they had to be wrong. I had no symptoms."

Yet, according to the American Cancer Society, most people diagnosed with early colorectal cancer do not experience symptoms. Symptoms such as blood in the stool, persistent stomach pain and unexplained weight loss may not appear until the disease has progressed.

Because of the size of Monteith's tumor, surgery was scheduled within the week. He said even then, he didn't quite accept what they were going to do. He didn't even bring an overnight bag with him to the hospital. The surgery resulted in the removal of one-third of his large intestine and the adjacent lymph nodes, and a four-day hospital stay. Pathology reports confirmed stage-three colon cancer.

About two weeks later, chemotherapy treatments started.

"To be blunt, chemo sucks," Monteith said. "If I can help one person avoid chemotherapy, then I've done my job."

One side effect of the chemotherapy Monteith experienced was cold sensitivity - especially while receiving treatments in Colorado Springs, Colo., during winter - which he described as "drinking a cupful of glass" when breathing in the cold air.

The American Cancer Society indicates as many as one in five people diagnosed with colorectal cancer have a family history of the disease. For Monteith, he didn't learn his family history until he was already diagnosed. "While still in the hospital, my father told me he had polyps removed when he was 40. Had I been armed with that information, my doctor told me I would have been instructed to be screened at least 10 years earlier. We may have avoided this entirely."

Monteith's message about the importance of discussing family medical history is simple: "It's vital that you ask; it could save your life."

Monteith is in remission and looking forward to celebrating the five-year mark when he can officially declare he is cured. "That's the big event we are looking to celebrate."

He describes another positive to his colorectal cancer experience - the discovery of early-stage melanoma during a routine follow-up last year. He also says the finding and removal of the melanoma would not have occurred had he not been going through this.

"My family describes it as, 'Wayne: 2, Cancer: 0.' I'm not looking to go 3-0. And certainly not 2-1."

To his fellow military community, Monteith offered, "Don't roll the dice." He feels fortunate, not lucky, that the screening caught the disease.

"I believe people think, 'It won't happen to me,'" he said. "I would have said the same thing the day before my colonoscopy."

TRICARE covers routine colorectal cancer screenings at no cost to TRICARE beneficiaries when they see a network provider. For more information, facts and tips, visit www.hnfs.com or find Health Net Federal Services on Facebook.