Dawn Mudgett, Pillager, was wallpapering at her grandmother's home when she felt a strange twinge in her right side and almost passed out.
The next day she went to the doctor. The 29-year-old mother of two learned she was bleeding internally, a condition caused by a large tumor growing in her colon. She was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer and was told she was the fifth youngest patient at St. Joseph's Medical Center ever to be diagnosed with colon cancer.
"It was unbelievable," she said. "I hadn't even ever had a broken bone in my life."
Doctors removed 2 1/2 feet of colon, along with the tumor, from Mudgett on June 14, 1996. Tests revealed 14 of her 16 lymph nodes removed from around the site were infected with cancer. Other tests discovered a lymph node in her back was also diseased, almost attaching itself to her left kidney.
This was not good news. Her doctors told her the infected lymph node in her back was inoperable.
Mudgett spent two months living in Rochester and received chemotherapy and interoperative radiation at the Mayo Clinic in an effort to kill the tumor. Her adrenal gland on her kidney was eventually removed, as was the growth on her back. After a year of healing, Mudgett had to have reconstructive surgery on her urinary tract because of the third-degree burns she suffered internally as a result of the radiation therapy.
Now, almost five years later, Mudgett does not look like a colon cancer survivor, but she is.
"People can't believe it when I tell them," said Mudgett, who is now 33. "The first question that they ask is how did I know I had it. I really had no clue."
And that's the problem with colon cancer. Most people with colon cancer don't have any symptoms until the cancer is far advanced. The best test for colon cancer is a colonoscopy, where a long, flexible tube linked to a video display is placed through the rectum into the colon while the patient is sedated. The doctor can look at the picture to find cancer or polyps. If a polyp is found, the doctor removes it using a wire loop that goes through the tube, then sends it to a lab for testing.
Many people don't undergo a colonoscopy because of the embarrassment or fear they may have about the procedure. But colon cancer afflicts about one in every 18 people in the United States, and is fatal in nearly half of those cases because it wasn't detected earlier. It is the most common cause of cancer death among non-smokers.
"It hasn't been very popular for the population to think about having a tube up their hind end," said Dr. John Berg, who performs colonoscopies and other endoscopic procedures at St. Joseph's Medical Center. "People are embarrassed. They don't want to think about it, and they don't want to find out bad news."
But more patients are having colonoscopies, which is why St. Joseph's Medical Center is expanding its endoscopic unit where about 1,500 colonoscopies are performed each year. Right now the unit has two endoscopic suites and two recovery rooms. Next fall the unit will move to a renovated area in the hospital where it will have four endoscopic suites and nine recovery rooms.
Berg attributes the rise in colonoscopies to an increased awareness of the disease by patients, especially after the death of celebrities like cartoonist Charles Schultz of colon cancer. When Katie Couric's husband died of colon cancer, "The Today Show" host became a spokesperson for colon cancer awareness and even underwent a colonoscopy on television to make people aware of the importance of colon cancer screening. After she did that, the number of colonoscopies at St. Joseph's dramatically increased.
Berg said in many cases colonoscopies, which cost about $1,500, are now covered by insurance.
On Friday, Berg removed a silver dollar-sized precancerous lesion from the colon of a healthy 64-year-old man. It was a perfect example, said Berg, of why colonoscopies are important. The man hadn't experienced any symptoms but had come in for a colonoscopy as a suggestion by his physician.
"This gentleman will be saved and has a very high chance of survival," said Berg. "But two or three years down the road, that wouldn't have been the case."
Researchers are finding other methods of discovering colon cancer, but the least invasive procedure -- a tiny pill-like camera that is swallowed -- is far off into the future, said Berg.
Mudgett has advice to those battling colon cancer: "Don't give up."
She said since her fight against the disease she's learned to live one day at a time and doesn't get upset over the little things. She and her husband Scott have two children, Dexter, 12, and Devyn, 8.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.