John Iannucci’s first colonoscopy in 2006 was clear, but about 10 years later, he noticed just a little bit of blood in his stool on occasion. It was thought to be hemorrhoids, but since he was almost due for his colonoscopy anyway, his doctor suggested he have that done.
That’s when he learned he had stage 2 rectal cancer.
It was scary but he felt confident because his primary care doctor told John he’d connect him with the best team to tackle the job: the gastrointestinal oncology team at Wilmot Cancer Institute. Specifically, John saw colorectal surgeon Rabbih Salloum, M.D., medical oncologist Richard Dunne, M.D., and radiation oncologist Alan Katz, M.D..
John and his wife, Barbara, felt immediately impressed by their team.
“Everybody’s been so pleasant, so nice,” he said.
John decided to enroll in a clinical trial with Dr. Dunne because he liked the idea of getting a little extra attention that comes with being part of a clinical trial. Standard treatment for rectal cancer is an initial low-dose chemotherapy and radiation treatment followed by surgery and then another round of chemotherapy treatment known as FOLFOX.
The clinical trial aimed to compare the standard rectal cancer treatment against a different path: receiving FOLFOX upfront and, if the response is good, skipping radiation treatment before having surgery.
John was randomized into the standard rectal cancer treatment arm, so his regimen began with chemotherapy and 29 radiation treatments. Then on Feb. 20, Dr. Salloum performed surgery.
The surgery included installation of an ostomy bag, which he kept for about nine months. It wasn’t easy. Sometimes accidents happened, but John said he feels fortunate because he had a number of supportive people around him to help. A family member who’d had an ostomy bag before called him often to talk about how things were going. At a niece’s wedding when an issue occurred, John’s three sons-in-law stepped up to help make sure he could continue participating in the festivities.
“My family’s been behind me 110 percent,” he says.
After surgery, he received FOLFOX chemotherapy, which went well for him. He had nausea only once, which he took care of immediately using the anti-nausea medication his team provided him. He has developed constant tingling in his fingertips and toes as a result of the treatment. It’s uncomfortable sometimes, but not unbearable.
He appreciated that his team of doctors took the time to be present with him in the moment, making John and Barb the focus during their visit.
“If you have questions, Dr. Dunne or nurses took the time to answer. They said, ‘If you’ve got any questions or anything, please ask. Your appointment right now is more important than my next one,’” he says.
Since finishing treatment and having his ostomy removed, John tries to get more fiber in his diet, at Dr. Dunne’s suggestion. Research shows there may be a link between high fiber intake and reduced risk of colorectal cancer.
John has also gotten good news: he’s cancer free. He continues having follow-up visits with his team and gets a colonoscopy every two years now. In fact, in his most recent follow-up colonoscopy at the beginning of 2018, doctors found a polyp, which is a growth that could eventually become cancer. Luckily, his doctor removed the growth, helping John stay cancer-free.
He hates to think what could’ve happened if he had ignored his symptoms and hadn’t gotten the colonoscopy when he did back in 2016. He encourages others to be proactive, too.
“I’ve got two words: Get tested,” he said. He agrees the prep isn’t fun, but the colonoscopy procedure isn’t too bad. It felt brief to him, only about 10 minutes, and he was sedated.
“The worst part is not doing anything,” he says.