How A Colonoscopy Changed A Life

A South Orange woman recovers from colon cancer and a hidden heart condition, thanks to a renowned preoperative program.

Regular screening for colorectal cancer should begin at age 45 for most people. Like many people, however, Michele Izuchukwu, 57, of South Orange, had avoided having a colonoscopy. The procedure, in which a long flexible tube is used to examine the colon, can detect colorectal cancer and even prevent it by finding growths (polyps) that can turn into cancer.

Last August, after repeated urging by her sister, Michele finally scheduled her first colonoscopy. The decision possibly saved her life. It led to the discovery of two serious health issues, one of which was brought to light only through a set of tests and procedures known as the Comprehensive Recovery Pathway (CRP) for Lower Intestinal Surgery at Saint Barnabas Medical Center (SBMC).

A Disease Detected

Results of the colonoscopy shocked Michele. Though she’d had no symptoms, she did have colon cancer, and surgery was the best option to remove it. She made an appointment with Mark Gilder, MD, a colorectal surgeon at SBMC and a member of RWJBarnabas Health Medical Group. “I told him I wanted to have the surgery right away,” she says.

But Dr. Gilder explained that at SBMC, the CRP process before such a surgery includes education for patients, as well as thorough testing, to make sure each person is as prepared as possible. Dr. Gilder scheduled a range of tests for Michele, including one for her heart. Though she’d had no obvious heart concerns, one test led to another, and then to another shock: Michele had serious blockages in her heart.

“I thought I’d just need a stent,” says Michele, who is a pharmacist, “and then I’d be ready for colon surgery.” A stent is a tiny tube that allows blood to flow through the blocked part of an artery, and placement of the stent usually takes a few hours.

“But the doctor told me I had four blocked arteries, ones that a stent could not fix,” she says. “I needed open heart surgery—a quadruple bypass—right away.”

“Michele’s heart condition was certainly unexpected, and another facility might have missed it,” Dr. Gilder says. “That could have caused a life-threatening issue during colon cancer surgery, even after it.”

‘The Scars Of A Warrior’

Michele had the heart surgery and recovered well. In December 2020, three months after her initial conversation with Dr. Gilder about colon surgery, she was physically ready for the next step.

Michele admits she was hesitant. “But Dr. Gilder told me, ‘You’re ready for this,’” she says. “Just before surgery, he gave me an elbow bump and the confidence that I’d be okay.”

And she is. After a two-night hospital stay at SBMC and four weeks of recovery at home, Michele went back to work. Today, she’s free of cancer, and her heart is healthier than it’s been in a long time.

“My son says that these surgeries have given me the scars of a warrior,” she says with a smile. With the support of her family, including three adult sons, and her team at SBMC, she fought two health battles—during a pandemic—and won.

“I’m glad to share the story of my scars,” she says, “if it can help others understand how important it is to have regular medical tests, on time.”

Feeling Better Faster

For surgery patients at Saint Barnabas Medical Center (SBMC), a good recovery begins well before the day they enter the hospital.

“We want people to be in the very best shape they can be before they have surgery,” says colorectal surgeon Mark Gilder, MD. “So we have developed a set of guidelines that involves patient education and a team of specialists. Our patients know what to expect before and after surgery, and they have the resources—workbooks, classes, even an app—to help them recover more quickly.”

The guidelines are part of SBMC’s Comprehensive Recovery Pathway (CRP). Specialists designed them to help a variety of patients, from those having chest, colon or gynecological surgery, to those having total joint replacement and weight loss surgery, to patients giving birth through cesarean section.

“For over five years, and for close to 1,000 patients, these pathways have become part of our normal system,” Dr. Gilder says. “They work amazingly well to help patients recover sooner and have fewer complications.”

SBMC experts were recently invited to an international medical conference to share their results. “Comprehensive Recovery Pathways are just as dramatic and exciting to me as the surgical advances I’ve seen in my 28 years as a surgeon,” Dr. Gilder says. “And our team here at Saint Barnabas Medical Center is very good at using them to help our patients. They’re a win for everyone involved.”

To learn more about gastrointestinal cancer care at Saint Barnabas Medical Center, call 888.724.7123 or visit www.rwjbh.org/sbmcgicancer.