June 16, 2010

At 35, Jeff Baker had the ideal life—married, three young daughters, and a rewarding job with a Kansas City law firm practicing construction law.

Except he figured he would soon be dead.

“That's the first thing you think when they tell you, you have cancer,” said Baker. Baker got the news in July 2007. He'd been having the kinds of problems that made him wonder if he should have a colonoscopy. On Friday the 13th, sitting alone in his office that afternoon, Baker got the call on his cell phone from the gastroenterologist with the results.

I've got some bad news for you.

As he had feared, Baker had colorectal cancer. He drove to the community pool where his wife, Cher, was sunning with friends and their daughters—Meghan, 7, Elizabeth, 6, and Allison, 2. Cher, who was pregnant at the time, looked at her husband in disbelief.

“Then everyone was crying, so my kids knew there was a problem,” said Baker. Daddy's sick. We're going to the hospital. That was all Baker could manage. It would be just as hard for him to break the news to his own parents. A few months earlier, Baker's 16-year-old brother, who had a heart condition, had died.

There was one bright spot. “The cancer had spread to three lymph nodes, but not to my liver,” Baker said.

Through a friend of a friend, he got into M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston to see a specialist. But after spending a week there undergoing tests, Baker knew it wouldn't work.

“I'd have had to be in Houston for two months to be part of a study, and I didn't want to be away from my family that long,” he said.

Landing at Saint Luke's

On the day he left Houston, Baker was able to find an oncologist in Kansas City. But the first thing he needed for his treatment— before the surgery, before the chemotherapy—was radiation.

At the airport in Houston, he dialed the number of Saint Luke's Radiation Oncology department.

Susan Herzberg, M.D., medical director of Radiation Oncology at Saint Luke's, was there when Baker called. “We said, ‘When you land, why don't you drive in from the airport?'” Dr. Herzberg said. “It wasn't typical, but when someone's been diagnosed and there's a need for rapid care, we'll do our best to make a hole in the schedule.”

By 4 that afternoon, Baker was in the radiation lab, meeting with Dr. Herzberg and a colleague. They were still there at closing time. “They met with me until around 7 p.m.,” said Baker. “I'd never had doctors spend so much time with me and reassure me the way they did.”

Baker's young age was uncommon but not unheard of, Dr. Herzberg said. What was very common was his frame of mind.

“We see the whole gamut of emotions when patients appear in our doorway,” Dr. Herzberg said. “Behind every one of them is fear. We spend a lot of time making sure patients are well informed and that they understand the process their therapy will take.”

There are other reassurances for patients as well. Saint Luke's has access to all the national treatment protocols for cancer (not every hospital does). These protocols are like highly sophisticated “recipes” that the country's leading experts on various types of cancer treatment devise.

One reason Saint Luke's can participate in these protocols is because of the highly specialized equipment the Radiation Oncology department employs. The advanced technology is key, according to Dr. Herzberg, in being able to treat patients more accurately.

“We have computers that work in four dimensions,” Dr. Herzberg said. “Tumors move with the target. With 4-D equipment, we can move with them.”

The five-minute fix

The week after Baker's initial meeting, he started his radiation treatment. He went five days a week for a month.

It sounds grueling. It wasn't.

“I thought that I'd be sick and in pain and that each session would take a long time,” said Baker. “It does wear you down toward the end, but it was nothing like I thought it would be. It was fairly quick and painless.” In fact, each session took all of five minutes. That equipment again.

“We have a tighter margin, which means we're more accurate in hitting the target,” said Dr. Herzberg. “For our patients, that translates into less toxicity and shorter treatment times.”

Baker was able to continue working full time during his radiation treatment, in large part because his therapists worked around his schedule, setting his appointments for late afternoon.

By October, Baker had completed his radiation therapy. Because, as Baker said, the therapy was “very noninvasive,” he was able to face his surgery and chemo from a position of relative strength. He's been in remission two years now.

Doctors had warned him during therapy that in all likelihood, he would not be able to have more children after undergoing radiation and chemo. Baker had shrugged it off—after all, his wife was pregnant with their fourth child.

That October, Cher miscarried.

“I figured that was it,” Baker said, and resigned himself to it. But last June, he got another call on his cell phone with life-changing news. “Cher called me and said, ‘I'm pregnant,'” Baker reported happily, now a father of four. He had not expected to hear that. But then, he had not expected to experience the kind of compassionate treatment and quick-and-painless radiation therapy he received.

And one more thing: “I feel fine now,” he said. “I'm missing some parts, but I'm still alive. I did not expect I would be when I first heard the news.”

Colonoscopy–who, me?

Screening can keep colorectal cancer from becoming a killer

Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States—and it can strike without symptoms. But if caught early, it can be very treatable. By national estimates, at least 60 percent of colorectal cancer deaths could be avoided if everyone aged 50 and older had regular screenings.

So talk to your doctor about screening if you:

  • Are age 50 and older
  • Have a family history of colorectal cancer
  • Have inflammatory bowel disease
  • Experience constipation, diarrhea, blood in your stools or abdominal pain that doesn't go away
  • Have a personal family history of cancer, including cancer of the GI tract, breast or female reproductive organs
  • Are African-American or of Eastern European Jewish descent, which may put you at higher risk