News from Parkwest

Hiking the Appalachian Trail has been on his “bucket list” for years, but it’s taken on a whole new meaning since Steve Millsaps was diagnosed with colon cancer last July.

Steve Millsaps is thankful for his recovery, and plans to raise awareness for colon cancer by hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Steve Millsaps is thankful for his recovery, and plans to raise awareness for colon cancer by hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Now, he wants to walk the 2,190-mile trek from Maine to Georgia to raise awareness of the disease and the importance of early detection.

“I feel like I have an obligation,” said Millsaps, who retired as Lenoir City High School’s principal in 2014. “You know, when you retire, you start wondering, ‘What’s your purpose now? What good can I do?’

I hope that by sharing my story, someone will read it, and they will get that same  phone call that I had. Then, I would feel this was my purpose.”

Whenever he mentions that “phone call,” Millsaps’ eyes fill with tears just as they had the day he received the call with the lab results of his cancer surgery just days earlier. “I’ll be honest with you, I cried,” he said. “I can’t think of a better phone call to get.”

That’s because Millsaps’ cancer was Stage I, had not spread to other organs and no chemotherapy or radiation would be needed.

Premier surgeon Dr. Michael Kelly recommends routine colonoscopies in order to detect colon issues in the earliest stages.

Premier surgeon Dr. Michael Kelly recommends routine colonoscopies in order to detect colon issues in the earliest stages.

Parkwest surgeon Dr. Michael Kelly of Premier Surgical Associates performed the laparoscopic surgery last August,  removing a small mass inside Millsaps’ cecum (near where the large and small bowels connect) and 8 to 10 inches of his colon.

In addition, Dr. Kelly sampled 18 lymph nodes, none of which showed evidence that the cancer has metastasized to nearby organs. “Normally, at least 12 lymph nodes should be retrieved, otherwise evaluation could be sub-optimal for staging of the cancer,” Dr. Kelly said. “The number of nodes tested can also depend on location, patient’s characteristics and previous treatments. If cancer is found in the lymph nodes, chemotherapy is recommended.”

The best treatment, however, is prevention. “Everyone should have a colonoscopy at age 50 or sooner if they have a family history, risk factors, or certainly any clinical symptoms such as bleeding,” said Dr. Kelly. “The key is: follow through with screening guidelines and don’t ignore symptoms like bowel changes or bleeding.”

It’s a cautionary lesson Millsaps almost didn’t heed himself. Although he had two small polyps removed during his first colonoscopy five years earlier at age 50, he wasn’t taking it as seriously this time around.

“My annual physical was on July 2, 2015, and it wouldn’t be uncommon for me to work from sunup to sundown at that time of year,” said Millsaps, who launched a landscaping and mowing business after his retirement. “It was raining and I remember sitting there thinking, ‘If it wasn’t raining today, I might have to reschedule my physical until later because I was so busy.’ But the fact that it was raining that day and I didn’t reschedule was just another blessing.”

Once the exam began, his primary care physician, Dr. Robert Montgomery, asked when Millsaps wanted to schedule his next colonoscopy. “I said, ‘Let’s do that, but schedule it for this fall or winter when mowing season is over.’”

But as the exam progressed and his doctor looked over the results of Millsaps’ fecal occult blood test, Dr. Montgomery saw something amiss. “I’ll never forget him asking me, ‘Is there any reason you might have blood in your stool?’” said Millsaps.

“I said, ‘No, but instead of waiting until fall to schedule the colonoscopy, let’s go ahead and schedule it now.’ Of course, he agreed.”

The cause of the bleeding was discovered by his gastroenterologist during  that colonoscopy. “Because of the location of my tumor, I really wouldn’t have noticed any signs until much later,” he said.

“All of my bloodwork was well within the normal range – I wasn’t anemic, so there wasn’t a sign that I was losing a lot of blood. Any of the other tests that they performed didn’t show anything. If I had waited, the outcome might have not been as good.”

Millsaps was likewise pleased with his surgery and 3-day stay at Parkwest Medical Center. “I had sworn that if I was ever diagnosed with cancer, I would certainly seek out the best possible care I could find, and in my situation, Dr. Montgomery and I felt that was right here,” said Millsaps. “Dr. Kelly doing my surgery laparoscopically was a huge plus, and the nurses went to extra lengths to make sure I was comfortable – even to the point that they brought me in another bed. They sure didn’t have to do that!”

Since his discharge, Millsaps has done a lot of thinking. He thought about the challenges others face with ongoing treatment and illness. “It made me reflect … to not take every day for granted. It made me appreciate having good health,” he said.

“I always thought that would be neat to hike the Appalachian Trail and have a cause (but) I always thought it would be for Alzheimer’s or something since there’s a history of Alzheimer’s in my father’s side,” Millsaps said. “Then, when I was diagnosed with colon cancer, it made me start thinking about doing something to raise awareness for early detection and the importance of having a physical and a colonoscopy.”

Milsaps and a friend are planning to start hiking the trail in June. Along the route, Millsaps would like to write a blog about his experience to encourage others to get a colonoscopy and talk to their doctor about colon cancer.

“I think it’s important that I share my story, and hopefully, it will encourage someone else,” Millsaps said. “I know that it already has. There have been friends and acquaintances that I have talked to that have said, ‘Well, you know, maybe I need to go have this done. I’ve been putting it off.’

There are a lot worse things than having these tests that we don’t want to have. I can tell you I’d much rather have the test than not have it and be told, ‘Well, you could have done something about this if you had just come in three years ago and had your colonoscopy.’”

Dr. Kelly supports routine colonoscopies wholeheartedly. “I’ve never met anyone who wants to have a colonoscopy, but it’s very tolerable,” said Dr. Kelly. “It’s much better than having surgery. If everyone got their colonoscopy, it would definitely eliminate a lot of colon cancer since the cancer develops from polyps which can be removed with an endoscope. The best outcome is to catch it as early as possible before it becomes cancer and has not spread.

If there is a tumor that’s still early, it can be effectively treated with just surgery. But if it’s allowed to grow, it will impact your life expectancy and quality of life.”

Millsaps said one of the first things he asked himself when he heard he had cancer was “Why me?” “But, unfortunately, the odds are that all of us in some form will be affected by cancer.

“We’re not immune to having either ourselves or someone very close to us having that news given to them. If just one person could get the same phone call that I received, that it was Stage I and not any cancer in my lymph nodes, all this would be worthwhile.”