More ups than downs: Huntington Woods woman copes with Lynch syndrome

This past nine months have been like a roller coaster ride for Anita Harris, 48, of Huntington Woods. After experiencing occasional stomach aches and a change in bowel movements in July, she had a colonoscopy. The mother of three posted on Facebook, "I exercise and live a healthy lifestyle."

Diagnosis

The colonoscopy detected a tumor. Her biopsy was inconclusive, but suspicious. The next thing she knew, Anita was meeting with Beaumont surgeon, Jason Shellnut, M.D., to schedule a surgery.

Anita also posted, "My time to rock n' roll and take care of business is Monday. It will involve cutting, removing and reattaching the colon, ugh! So here I am sharing my story with you. The crazy thing is I read this stuff that others write- I never, never, NEVER, imagined I'd be the one composing these details…I am nervous…Life is a roller coaster and I want to enjoy the ride."

Surgery

Her surgery at Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak went well. The tumor was removed. Anita explained she felt lucky when they told her she has stage 1 colon cancer.

Six weeks following her surgery, Anita was informed that her tumor had markers that were suggestive of Lynch syndrome, the most common form of genetic colon cancer. Lindsay Dohany, certified genetic counselor, Beaumont Cancer Genetics Program, explained that all colorectal tumors go through the Lynch syndrome universal screening protocol. Says Dohany, "We're looking for markers that might warrant further evaluation and testing. Genetic mutations account for 5 to 10 percent of all colorectal cancers. Lynch syndrome accounts for about 3 percent."

Genetic testing

In Anita's case, further testing was recommended. Blood tests revealed she inherited the gene for Lynch syndrome. Says Dana Zakalik, M.D., director, Cancer Genetics Program, Beaumont Health System, "Not everyone who inherits the gene will develop colorectal cancer, however, the risk is very high - about 80 percent."

Anita quickly learned Lynch syndrome is a hereditary condition that causes greater risk of developing certain cancers, especially colon and uterine cancers.

She says, "It's not a great thing being told I have Lynch syndrome, but it is what it is and if I have an opportunity to turn a negative into a positive, then I will."

The youngest of eight children, Anita was not aware of any family history of cancer. After the news, she did share the information about Lynch syndrome with her siblings and parents. Subsequently, her parents and college-aged son and daughter were all tested.

"Genetics is the future of medicine," says Anita. "I've learned much in such a short time. I'm grateful my cancer was caught early. I also know there are options to help prevent or lower my risk of developing future cancers. In fact, this past December I underwent a hysterectomy and oopherectomy."

Risk

Who is at risk of developing colorectal cancer and who should consider testing for Lynch syndrome? A family history of cancer and diagnosis under the age of 50 are two risk factors. Those individuals should be referred to a genetic counselor.

Meeting Dr. Lynch

Anita knows it's her duty to pay attention to her health and be proactive. This past month she met Henry Lynch, M.D., regarded as one of the fathers of cancer genetics, at a West Michigan symposium. "It was a pleasure to meet this medical pioneer. I told him how grateful I was for his contribution to science."

Mission to educate

During March, Anita has made it her mission to educate family and friends via social media about the importance of colon cancer awareness month and that colonoscopies save lives.

Gov. Rick Snyder declared March 22 as Lynch Syndrome Cancer Awareness Day. Explains Dr. Zakalik, "The proclamation was huge. This syndrome is often forgotten and way under-detected. It's estimated 25,000 Michigan residents have Lynch syndrome, but less than 2 percent know they have it. Colorectal cancer, one of the deadlier cancers, can be prevented."