Joe Franch had just had his colonoscopy three years ago, so he thought there was no way the blood in his stool could be cancer. He’d had back surgery and figured the muscle relaxers he was taking must be causing the worrisome symptom. He wasn’t due for another screening for seven more years.
But when he stopped taking the muscle relaxers and the symptom remained, he had a colonoscopy to be safe. That’s when his team found a large tumor, estimated to be two-and-a-half years old. Franch’s story offers a critical lesson on the importance of getting symptoms checked out, even if you are up to date on your routine screenings.
In many cases, colon cancer is slow growing. It starts with polyps that can easily be removed during a colonoscopy – often stopping cancer in its tracks. But not every case is slow growing and if left for too long, these polyps can develop into a difficult-to-treat cancer.
Devastated after his diagnosis, Franch turned to Rabih Salloum, M.D., a surgical oncologist and colorectal cancer specialist, who showed a level of care he hadn’t experienced before.
“You hear those words that you’ve got cancer and you feel very isolated, very alone, very separated from everyone else in the room,” he says. “Having that feeling that you’re being so well taken care of, in such capable hands, made such a difference. He wasn’t going to let anything happen to you.”
About a week after doctors found the tumor, Joe had robotic surgery with Salloum, who removed a section of Joe’s colon and 67 lymph nodes using a minimally invasive procedure that tends to have a quicker recovery time than the traditional surgery. For Franch, recovery took a few days, and he made sure to closely follow recommendations the team made, which included being physically active.
“They had this thing posted, if you went up and down the hallway seven times was a mile. And one day I believe I did 12 miles and after that they gave me an early discharge. It was great,” he says. “I did everything that Dr. Salloum had suggested and the prognosis looked fantastic.”
He wasn’t over the hump yet, though. A day after his surgical follow-up, Franch began to feel sick and found out he had sepsis. He spent 11 days in the ICU recovering from that, with Salloum remaining steadfast by his side.
“He was there coming to see me every single day. It wasn’t just popping in. He’d come in, he’d talk to me,” Joe says. “He’s really brought an ease and a lot of calm to what was a pretty scary time for me.”
After surgery, Franch learned that out of 67 lymph nodes removed, five had cancer, so his medical oncologist recommended more treatment to ensure they’d gotten all the cancer. Because of his relative health otherwise, he started receiving a very aggressive chemotherapy regimen every other week through a pump he’d wear home for 48 hours.
He experienced side effects right from the start, including neuropathy in his hands, and then later, his feet. His mouth felt sore and he felt weak. It was a grueling time, but the infusion team at Wilmot Cancer Center made it a little easier to get through.
“They were really good at remembering people’s names and faces and being welcoming and very upbeat, which helped a lot,” he says.
Although the initial plan was to be on chemo for six months, he felt awful three months in. He had no energy and his neuropathy had worsened. So, his oncologist consulted the literature and decided with his stage of cancer, if he stopped now, he could end the side effects while still having a high probability that the cancer would be kept at bay, according to the latest studies. So, they stopped treatment after three months.
“It’s great that there was an educated way of accessing whether it was necessary to continue that or not,” Joe says, “Wouldn’t it have been awful to say, ‘Well, we have to continue this because this is just what we do’ versus having an educated way of being able to look at it?”
Since Joe finished treatment, he still deals with some side effects but is working on trying to feel better. He has chronic migraines but sees neuro-oncologists at UR Medicine to try to manage them, which he sees as his final hurdle since his cancer diagnosis. He tries to remain active, enrolling in the LIVESTRONG program through the Greater Rochester YMCA, although he didn’t get to finish the program before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Since then, despite challenges that COVID-19 brought, he continues to do well. He now encourages others to seek care if they should have symptoms like he had in the beginning, and he’s thankful for many who helped him after his diagnosis.
“Everybody you would talk to, all the way through any appointment, they were just wired differently,” he says about his team. “Having the facilities and the doctors that I had saved my life and I’m so grateful.”
He adds, “Now it’s looking forward to taking this gift and enjoying the rest of my life.”