Mark Lough, Owensville, will find out later this month if a specialized radiation treatment that he had on his liver, Liver Embolization, to treat his cancer has worked. The waiting is difficult, emotionally excruciating, but Lough knows there is nothing else he can do right now except pray, which he does daily.
It didn’t have to be this way, though, said Lough. The cancer in his liver began in his colon and only spread to his liver because it went undetected for so long.
Lough waited years beyond his 50th birthday to have his first colonoscopy done, and then only had one because he had no choice.
The first sign that something was seriously wrong was that Lough had been constipated for nearly a week. When laxatives and other over-the-counter treatments didn’t work, he was forced to see a doctor.
“I couldn’t eat any more. My stomach was bloated, hard as a rock,” said Lough.
The doctor ordered him prescription-strength laxatives, but those didn’t work either. Then, like so many people looking for answers these days, Lough turned to Google and did a search on the symptoms of colon cancer.
“For some reason it just popped in my head,” he said, noting his doctor hadn’t mentioned it and he had no family history of colon cancer.
Reading the list of signs and symptoms on the American Cancer Society website sent a chill through him. He had every one.
“I immediately got on the phone and called my doctor to set me up with a colonoscopy as soon as possible,” said Lough.
The waiting list in Washington was more than a month, so Lough went to Jefferson City. Even before the results came back, he knew he had cancer, but he didn’t know how desperate the situation was — Stage 4. A large tumor in his colon was blocking his bowels, and the cancer had spread to his liver.
The oncologist told him even with treatment he probably would only live around 10 months. That was in April 2016.
Lough’s sister was with him at the oncologist’s office. He remained stoic in the face of the news and only let himself break down and cry for about 15 seconds outside of the office, he said. Then he pulled himself together to face the fight ahead of him.
Chemo, Radiation, Surgery
Lough’s treatment plan began with six months of an aggressive chemotherapy that included weeklong doses every other week. On treatment weeks, he spent Mondays at the Mercy office in Washington receiving the chemo medication through an IV and a port in his chest for six to eight hours. Then he left the office wearing a “fanny pack”-like bag that administered the chemo medication the rest of the week.
“It was rough,” said Lough, but not as hard as some other cancer patients have had it. He didn’t lose his hair, and although he did feel sick, the fatigue was worse. He slept as much as 16 to 20 hours a day every day (and actually still does).
The first round of chemo brought positive news.
“The scan showed that the cancer cells were not active,” said Lough. “For as bad as I had it, my oncologist even got tears in his eyes. He said, ‘This doesn’t happen.’ But I wasn’t out of the woods.”
Lough completed six weeks of radiation and another six months of chemotherapy to shrink the tumor so it could eventually be removed in surgery. A new scan yielded more positive results.
With tears in his eyes, Lough’s oncologist told him he was “cancer free.” His cancer was dormant. The only thing left to do was remove the tumor.
A month after Lough’s surgery in July 2017, a third scan showed that he was still cancer free.
But by the fall, that had changed. Lough’s doctors discovered that the cancer had returned to his liver, and it is inoperable. The conventional chemo and radiation treatments he had tried previously wouldn’t work this time, he said. Doctors recommended the liver embolization, which sends radiation injection directly to his liver.
Don’t Wait to Have Your Colonoscopy
As Lough waits to have his scan to show whether or not the liver embolization has made a difference for him, he’s still extremely fatigued. Emotionally, he is equally as drained.
Looking back, Lough said he wouldn’t wish the experience he’s been through these past two years on his worst enemy.
“It is painful like you wouldn’t believe, physically and emotionally,” he said.
At this point, Lough feels an urgency to do the only thing he knows he can do to make a difference — encourage every adult age 50 and older to get a colonoscopy, and get it sooner than age 50 if you have a family history.
He hadn’t been going to the doctor regularly himself, and he put off having his first colonoscopy because of how unpleasant he expected it would be.
“Worst mistake of my life,” said Lough.
You may see or hear from Lough more these days as he takes his message to more and more people. He’s already done a couple of television segments encouraging everyone 50 and over not to put off getting a colonoscopy, including an interview with father and son Charlie and Gus Schlottach at their White Mule Winery outside of Rosebud.
“You think it’s going to be bad, but it’s really not that bad. The alternative is far worse, death in my case,” said Lough.
“People say this stuff tastes bad that you have to drink. You have to drink a gallon in a short period of time. You get bloated. But it doesn’t taste that bad. You are not in any pain, maybe uncomfortable for a while. You go to the hospital, they will take you to a room, put on a gown, they will hook you up to IVs and give you medicine, but you will get put to sleep. You will wake up literally 10-15 minutes later. You have no idea anything was done to you,” said Lough.
“And then, because you fasted for two days, go to the most wonderful place you can think of and eat like a pig. That’s what I do every time I have to get one. I’ve probably had half a dozen.”
Lough, who takes daily medication to ease his pain, wants everyone to know that putting off his colonoscopy until he had no choice may have led to the cancer spreading to his liver. If it had been found sooner, it may not have spread.
“If it wasn’t in my liver, I’d be fine right now. I’d be working. Everything would be back to normal. But I waited too long,” said Lough. “Nobody needs to go through what I’ve gone through.”
Colonoscopy: ‘You Don’t Feel Anything’
Dr. Thao Marquez, a colorectal surgeon with Mercy Hospital St. Louis, said what many people who fear getting a colonoscopy for the first time don’t realize is that they are asleep for the duration of the procedure.
“You don’t really feel anything,” she said.
“The hardest part is taking the prep the day before.”
There have been some changes to the solution that patients have to drink the day before the procedure to empty their bowels.
“It used to be you had to drink this 1-gallon prep solution, but now we have this split dose prep, which is two small 6-ounce bottles that you take and drink water or another clear liquid in between,” said Dr. Marquez. “So it’s less volume.”
She recommends to her patients to start their prep the day before after work, around 4 or 5 p.m.
Patients will need to be on a clear liquid diet for a full 24 hours before the procedure, and fasting for the four hours immediately before the procedure.
A clear liquid diet means anything you can see through, said Dr. Marquez — that includes Jell-O, clear sodas, even coffee without cream.
After the procedure, patients are able to go on an eating binge, and many of them do, she said.
“People look forward to it. They talk about where they are going to go for breakfast afterward,” said Dr. Marquez.
Can Prevent Cancer
The purpose of the screening colonoscopy is to find any polyps, or small abnormal tissue growth, that may be growing and remove them before they can develop into cancer.
Polyps which are left alone have a 25 to 40 percent chance of degenerating into cancer, said Dr. Marquez.
“So doing a screening colonoscopy, when people feel just fine, if you take out polyps, you actually can help prevent cancer. That’s really the purpose,” she said.
In the general population, around 60 to 70 percent of people start having polyps after age 50, which is why 50 is the recommended age to have your first screening colonoscopy.
But not everyone does develop polyps by age 50, said Dr. Marquez. If that’s the case, you will get a 10-year clearance before having a second colonoscopy.
How often a person is recommended to have colonoscopies depends on the results of their first colonoscopy along with family history, said Dr. Marquez.
Someone who has a clean first colonoscopy and no family history can wait 10 years before having a second colonoscopy.
Someone who has a family history of colon cancer, but who has no polyps in their first colonoscopy can wait five years.
And someone who has polyps found in their colonoscopy is only recommended to wait three years.
The reason it is so important to have a screening colonoscopy done at age 50 is that by the time symptoms appear indicating there is a problem, the cancer is likely much more advanced and likely to have spread to other organs.
At that point, the prognosis is much more serious.
“Colon cancer is curable, unless you wait too long and it has spread,” said Dr. Marquez.
Man’s Best Friend
Lough has leaned on family and friends to help him get through the last couple of years emotionally, but they can only provide so much support. It has been his 11-year-old, 22-pound dog Duncan that has helped buoy his spirits more than anyone.
“The week I found out my cancer was back, he started giving me so much more attention, like you wouldn’t believe. The dog is pretty independent, and I love it, but . . . he’s constantly with me now. All the time. He didn’t used to do that before. People might think I’m crazy but I honestly knew that dog knew I was sick again,” said Lough.
“I live alone, you can talk to friends only so much, you still need some sort of companionship, and he’s been mine. I honestly don’t think I would be here without him, because emotionally he’s been there.”
Lough has used Duncan as a spokesperson, of sorts, to help him spread the message of getting colonoscopies. It was a way to lighten up a situation that was a little uncomfortable for Lough at first.
He also credits his employer, Hellebusch Tool & Die in Washington, for standing by him as he has endured treatments and surgery.
“I can’t imagine how my life would be if I’d been employed anywhere else. They’ve been that good to me,” said Lough, noting he currently is on long-term disability.
And he is grateful for the many people — including strangers — who have said they are praying for him.
“I 100 percent believe I would not be here without prayer,” he remarked, noting he believes it literally saved him physically and emotionally.
“I just don’t believe I would be here without all the prayers.”
Colorectal Cancer Facts:
• Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in both men and women and the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, despite being highly preventable, detectable, and treatable.
• The risk of colorectal cancer begins to rise significantly around the age of 50, so every man and woman should begin regular screenings by age 50.
• Early colorectal cancer usually has no symptoms — warning signs typically occur with more advanced disease.
• Prevention and early detection are possibly because most colon cancers develop from polyps. Early detection tests can help find these polyps, which can easily be removed, thereby lowering a person’s cancer risk!
• If you are over 50, you should get screened for colon cancer. Talk to your doctor about screening options.