Unless you’ve got the soul of a machine, you hate to see what 50-year-old John Nelson has gone through the past few months.
In December, the NV Energy technician had a colonoscopy and learned he had colon cancer. Soon afterward, he underwent surgery to remove a tumor.
Later, genetic testing found he had abnormal genes associated with Lynch syndrome, which causes 3 percent of colon cancers in the United States and means he’s 10 times more likely to develop a second colon cancer than someone else who’s had a bout with that type of cancer.
With that in mind, his oncologist, Dr. Fadi Braiteh, of Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada, put him on several months of a prophylactic regimen of chemotherapy, which he remains on even after returning to work.
Because Lynch syndrome is a hereditary condition, and is known to often strike early in adulthood, Nelson had to make difficult phone calls to his two daughters — they’re in their late 20s — urging them to get tested for colon cancer.
It wasn’t much easier to notify brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews.
And, oh yes, Nelson also had to tell relatives that Lynch syndrome is even more prevalent among people of Native American heritage — his family is Navajo — and that the syndrome also increases the risk for stomach, pancreas, biliary tract, small bowel, ureter, renal, brain, endometrial and ovarian cancer.
When he called his 73-year-old mother — she survived a bout with colon cancer in her 40s — to let her know about the family genetic burden, he said she was overcome with guilt. One of her daughters and a son have died of colon cancer.
“Any parent would feel terrible about passing something onto your children,” he said recently as he sat in the living room of his Summerlin condo with his wife, Ellane. “I felt guilty when I called my daughters. Mom and I didn’t know about the genetic problem, but it still makes you feel guilty.”
No doubt about it: Lynch syndrome hasn’t made Nelson’s life easy.
What’s even more troubling about his experience is that a place he trusted to help him get better exacerbated his problem.
He says he acquired an infection at the San Martin campus of St. Rose Dominican Hospital and that it made him so ill that he lost 40 pounds and was bedridden for a month.
“I couldn’t get a straight answer from anyone about how I got it,” he said. “I’m still weak from it.”
A St. Rose spokeswoman did tell me that the San Martin campus infection rates “were lower than the National Health Care Safety Network goals in all infection-related measures.”
Each year nearly 2 million hospital-acquired infections claim nearly 100,000 lives and add $45 billion in costs. The Institute of Medicine found that if hospital staff would make minor adjustments — like washing their hands more — the problem could be significantly reduced.
Despite his infection experience, Nelson isn’t warning people that one of the worst places you can go when you’re sick is a hospital.
“Actually, I want to tell people to be screened for colon cancer,” he said. “There’s a 90 percent survival rate if you catch it early. You should start at age 50 with colonoscopies, or younger if you have a family history like I have. I want something positive to come out of my experience.”
Paul Harasim is the medical reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. His column appears Mondays. Harasim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2908.