Colon cancer

Michael receives empathetic care

Michael Hill (right) with his two sons Oliver (left) and Alex (middle)
Michael Hill (right) with his two sons Oliver (left) and Alex (middle)

When Michael Hill was told that he would need surgery to remove a baseball-size tumor from his colon, he had little doubt that his UW Health surgeon, Dr. Ray King, had the training and experience to do the job.

What surprised Michael, however, was how kind, attentive and empathetic Dr. King was. Michael’s wife, Sharon, and his son, Alex, were also impressed by King’s approach.

“My dad was, frankly, scared out of his mind,” says Alex, a physician assistant. “He was only 59 when he was diagnosed with colon cancer after a routine colonoscopy. He was very nervous about the surgery and the whole situation, understandably.”

Dr. King sensed Michael’s anxiety, but also knew he was speaking to a well-educated former corporate finance executive.

“Dr. King spoke on a level that wasn’t over my dad’s head or beneath his intelligence,” says Alex. “He told my dad that there would be some days that suck but that his cancer was treatable. He also said he’d be with my dad every step of the way.”

During that first appointment, Dr. King’s attention never drifted for a moment.

“Dr. King was totally present, as if he had nobody else to see,” Alex says. “He never looked at his phone or his watch and gave my dad his personal cell number. That was incredibly reassuring because my dad felt respected and heard. The word ‘awesome’ gets over-used these days, but Dr. King was truly awesome.”

Straight talk with an empathetic touch

While Dr. King doesn’t believe in sugar coating information, he tries to be as optimistic as the situation allows.

“Patients can see right through you if you try to BS them,” says Dr. King. “For Michael, I wanted him to know that we had a sound plan, the odds were in his favor and he would not need to wear a colostomy bag. Just as important, however, I wanted Michael to know that I am not just a robot who takes out a cancer. I understand the emotional aspect of this disease and try to connect with my patients and their family members on that level.”

On June 21, 2021, Michael successfully underwent surgery and his tumor was removed.

“We did a standard laparoscopic surgery to cut out the tumor and reconnect the colon,” says Dr. King. “Michael did great and his recovery has been going well.”

Chemotherapy targets microscopic cancer cells left behind

While surgery was the frontline weapon against Michael’s tumor, many patients with his type of colon cancer also undergo chemotherapy to kill any microscopic cancer cells that may get left behind.

“In cases like Michael’s, you don’t know for sure if chemotherapy is necessary, but having it done kills the cells we can’t see, which only increases his chances of reaching a full cure,” says UW Health’s Dr. Noelle LoConte, Michael’s medical oncologist with the UW Carbone Cancer Center.

“Aside from some of the usual side effects of chemotherapy, Michael is doing well. We will follow him closely over the next few years.”

Dr. LoConte also highly recommends bringing a family member or friend to appointments – if possible – as Michael did with his wife and son.

“There is so much information to cover, and for many cancer patients, it all sounds like the ‘wah-wah-wah’ teacher voice from the old ‘Peanuts’ cartoons,” says Dr. LoConte. “I can’t overstate the importance of having an advocate at your side to better capture the information and ask questions.”

Colon cancer screening can save your life

Michael’s case also perfectly illustrates the life-saving power of colon cancer screenings, which adults should begin having at age 45. (In 2021, experts reduced the recommended age for starting screenings from 50 to 45).

“Fewer men and women are dying from colon cancer over the last 40 years primarily because more people are getting screened,” says Dr. LoConte. “This is one of the easiest cancers to prevent and we have a menu of screening options from traditional colonoscopy to virtual colonoscopy to at-home kits. Each one has advantages and disadvantages, so we encourage anyone 45 and older who is not getting routine colon cancer screenings to talk with their doctor. It could mean the difference between a curable and incurable cancer, just as it did for Michael.”