May 16, 2022
Survivor: Why I’m on a mission to help others prevent colorectal cancer
BY Kris Sokolowski
The running joke in my family is that I’m always at the doctor’s office. I’ve never missed a checkup since I was in my early 20s. And I go in for everything. If my elbow hurts or I get the sniffles, I’m calling right away for an appointment. If something’s wrong, I’d rather know now when I can still do something about it than when it’s too late and I can’t.
That’s why it’s so ironic that I was diagnosed with stage IV colorectal cancer last year. I hadn’t been screened for it because I was only 48 at the time, and the guidelines back then said people of average risk should start getting a colonoscopy at age 50. Even more ironic is the fact that a few months after my diagnosis, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force lowered the recommended age to 45. If I’d gotten a colonoscopy at 45, doctors might’ve just pulled out a couple of polyps and been done with it.
That’s why I’m on a mission now to get the word out about the importance of colorectal cancer screenings. Because this is a very preventable disease. And no one should ever have to live with it.
My stage IV colorectal cancer diagnosis
I don’t smoke, I run 3-5 miles a day, and I really take care of my body. During my annual physical five months before my cancer diagnosis, my doctor told me I was the picture of health. He called me “iron man,” and said, “See you next year,” just like he always did.
Then, in May 2021, I developed a constant growling in my belly. It sounded like the gurgling you hear when you’re hungry. But it didn’t matter whether I’d just eaten or not.
My doctor said it was probably indigestion and gave me some pills. When the growling didn’t stop, he had me come back in for a scan to see if there was a blockage. The next morning, he called and said I needed to see a gastroenterologist right way. He could see a mass on my colon and liver and said it might be stage IV cancer.
I couldn’t believe it. I’d spent my entire life going to doctors to make sure this exact thing didn’t happen. But I contacted the specialist he recommended. That doctor did an MRI and a colonoscopy that confirmed I had stage IV colorectal cancer. It was already in my colon, liver, sternum, spine, lymph nodes and omentum (the lining of the abdomen).
Why I chose MD Anderson for colorectal cancer treatment
I consulted two oncologists near my home in Atlanta before ultimately seeking treatment at MD Anderson. I was young, strong and otherwise healthy, so I decided to do everything possible to stay alive.
Research had shown me that MD Anderson was the best place for cancer care, so I called for an appointment. The first person I met there was gastrointestinal oncologist Dr. Christine Parseghian. She said she was determined to keep me alive for as long as possible, too.
My colorectal cancer treatment
Genetic testing revealed that I carry the KRAS G-13-D mutation. Dr. Parseghian said that gave me three good options for treatment. I could do a combination of two, three or four different chemotherapy drugs. I told her to give me the strongest cocktail, so we started out with eight rounds of FOLFOXIRI (5-fluorouracil, irinotecan, and oxaliplatin) plus bevacizumab in June. After that, I had eight more rounds of maintenance chemotherapy.
The idea was to shrink my tumors as much as possible with full-strength chemotherapy, then keep me on a maintenance dose at half-strength until the tumors started growing again. We’d repeat that cycle until it stopped working, because surgery and radiation therapy were not recommended for me — due both to my genetic mutation and the type of cancer I had. And Dr. Parseghian said it was known to build up resistance to chemotherapy.
Until this February, scans showed all of my tumors were either stable or shrinking, except for the area in my abdomen. I completed four more rounds of full-strength chemotherapy. When I saw Dr. Parseghian in April, that one area in my abdomen was still growing, so I’ll see a targeted therapy specialist in June. That’s when we’ll start looking at clinical trials and immunotherapies.
Why I still have hope, despite a stage IV cancer diagnosis
I am a realist, so I know I might not be here next year. But that’s only encouraged me to do a lot of things I normally wouldn’t do. In July, for instance, I’ll be running with the bulls in Spain.
I’m also very competitive. So, if somebody gives me a target, I’m going to exceed it. When I asked Dr. Parseghian during our first meeting how much time I had left, she said, “Statistically, about 30 months. But don’t dwell on that or use it as a benchmark. Because that figure lumps you in with a bunch of people who are not nearly as young or as healthy as you are.”
I am determined to beat this, so I still have a lot of hope. MD Anderson has world-renowned doctors and the most cutting-edge treatments available. I also have a lot of faith in Dr. Parseghian. She has been comforting and encouraging from Day 1. And, she immediately demonstrated a deeper insight into my diagnosis than any of the other doctors I saw.
I know it sounds weird, but I actually enjoy going to MD Anderson now. When I get off the plane and start seeing its billboards at the airport, I get all emotional. I love the “strike out cancer” logo. It really resonates with me. So, I’m very happy to be there. I know that MD Anderson is going to give me my very best chance of beating this.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.
This is a very preventable disease.