Survivor: Colon Cancer
After turning 50, Wanda Retzer Deffenbaugh, of Michael, did what everyone is advised; she got her first colonoscopy.
The Calhoun High School English teacher went for the screening on July 25, 2016, and was told a large polyp the size of a lime was found. Three days later, the doctor called Wanda personally to tell her it was cancer.
“After I got off the phone, I just started breaking down,” said Wanda, who is now 51. “I never thought I’d be one of those people to say, ‘I have cancer.’”
The news was even more startling because Wanda “didn’t feel a thing. I didn’t have any symptoms.”
Following a CT scan, Wanda was told the cancer was a T3 stage, meaning it had grown through the muscular area and into the outer layer of the colon, but not all the way through. And the cancer had not spread to any nearby organs or tissue.
“They called it a carpet tumor because it had spread out,” she said.
She was referred to Dr. James Piephoff, board certified radiation oncologist, and Dr. Manpreet Sandhu, board certified medical oncologist & hematologist, both with OSF Saint Anthony’s Cancer Center of Excellence in Alton. Wanda was referred to them for radiation and chemotherapy to shrink the tumor before surgery.
The American College of Surgeons named OSF Saint Anthony’s Cancer Center of Excellence a Commission on Cancer Outstanding Achievement Award winner. The award recognizes OSF Saint Anthony’s as one of the top 75 accredited cancer programs in the United States. The Center provides comprehensive services and treatments including surgery, chemotherapy, radiation oncology and diagnostic testing.
Wanda said she, like many people, had thought a “cancer” diagnosis was a death sentence. But she soon realized that wasn’t the case.
“That initial first day when I was by myself and received the news, it was really hitting me hard,” Wanda said. “Other days I just say, ‘Lord, help me get through this.’ If He brought me to it, He’ll bring me through it.”
Shortly after receiving the results of the CT, she sought solace at the gravesite of her parents.
“It was comforting talking to them,” she said.
"You can overcome. You can fight"
Wanda found a renewed sense of hope.
“What changed to give me hope was when I started seeing Dr. Piephoff and Dr. Sandhu,” she said. “They are just wonderful, compassionate people. Dr. Piephoff answered every single question. He wasn’t in a hurry. The entire staff – nurses, radiation techs, all of them – are so supportive and compassionate. It was a pleasant surprise.”
Wanda underwent 25 treatments over five weeks. She began August 22, which also happened to be the first day of school for the 2016-2017 year.
“My school has been so supportive,” she said. “I can’t believe the outpouring from the community and then coupled with the positive support of the Cancer Center of Excellence staff. I am fortunate to have the support. I can’t imagine dealing with something like this without a supportive network.”
Wanda also credits her family, which includes her husband, Doug, and their sons, Jimmy, David, Seth, Austin, Ryan and Brandon.
After first being diagnosed, Wanda called her brother, Clint, who is two years younger, to encourage him to get a colonoscopy. His screening found some polyps, but they were small enough to be removed and not cancerous.
It wasn’t until this past October that Wanda found out colon cancer runs in her family. A 96-year-old aunt – her father’s sister – passed away on October 7, 2016. Wanda went to the visitation and shared with another aunt that she had been diagnosed with colon cancer. That’s when Wanda was told that the aunt who had passed away had been diagnosed with colon cancer at the age of 30.
“She wore a colostomy bag for 65 years and I never knew it. She didn’t want people to know,” Wanda said. “She had it and she lived to be 96, so you have to think positive.”
Today, Wanda encourages people to get colonoscopies and be open about the family medical history.
“People shouldn’t hold a family secret like that. You need to share things like that,” she said.
When Wanda finished her last day of treatment at OSF Saint Anthony’s Cancer Center of Excellence, she got to “ring the bell” signaling the end of that leg of her journey.
“My main thing is having faith in God – that’s really pulled me through,” she said. “It’s early. I still have a big road ahead.”
A December colon resection surgery went well, and there’s the possibility of more radiation and chemotherapy in 2017.
“I keep asking people to keep me in their prayers,” Wanda said. “I just feel so uplifted. You can overcome. You can fight.”