Tending to What Matters Most—John’s Story
Cancer is never an easy conversation. On average, approximately 149,000 people in the United States will be diagnosed with some degree of colorectal cancer every year. As one could imagine, the word “cancer” hits even harder after losing the love of your life to the disease.
John, an 81 year-old White Oak resident who was healthy and enjoying retirement, received his rectal cancer diagnosis after the passing of his wife of 44 years. John was the sole caregiver for his wife. “Caregivers are such an important piece in this process,” says John. “I was a caregiver for my wife for 33 months when she was suffering from ovarian cancer, and also for my mother, father, brother, friends and son at different times in their lives. At St. Clair Health, I didn’t need a caregiver because the staff provided exceptional care and knew everything about my diagnosis and treatment plan.”
“I was a person that never went to the doctor and was fortunate enough to live a very healthy life,” says John. He only went to a hospital as a six-year-old for a tonsillectomy, and then at age 60 for a prostate scrape.
In March 2020, John had some unexplained bleeding which resulted in his primary care physician recommending a colonoscopy screening. Findings from his screening ultimately led to John discovering that he indeed had developed an intra-abdominal tumor. After this diagnosis, he had additional complications with his bladder. St. Clair physicians realized the tumor was regrettably positioned on his bladder causing additional bleeding. Upon realizing the severity of his condition, Jay B. Herman, M.D., a urology surgeon, performed urgent surgery the very next day.
The physicians at St. Clair were able to identify the tumor as cancerous and diagnosed John with rectal cancer. Rectal cancer is very similar to colon cancer, as one may often hear the term colorectal cancer. Malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the rectum and can grow at a rapid pace. Unfortunately, most times the cancerous tumors are attached onto a certain portion of your colon and grow quickly, making surgery quite complex—and frequently difficult to identify the originating source.
John knew he’d have to go through the treatment process in order to continue living a normal and healthy life. The first step of his process was to receive radiation treatment to help shrink the tumor enough for our colorectal specialist to perform surgery and successfully eradicate the entire tumor. The expert team of oncologists at St. Clair Hospital Cancer Center affiliated with UPMC Hillman Cancer Center assisted John with his radiation treatments. In November 2020, after 28 radiation therapy treatments, the tumor was finally small enough to perform surgery.
Scott Holekamp, M.D., was John’s surgeon for his rectal cancer operation and he couldn’t have been more pleased with the compassionate and patient-centered care he provided. “Dr. Holekamp is a person I’ll remember all my life,” says John. “The first thing Dr. Holekamp did was give out his cell phone number and expressed to call him any day, any hour, seven days a week.”
Colorectal surgeons often choose different techniques depending on the nature of the condition and the specific needs of the patient. St. Clair Health uses advanced surgical techniques like the da Vinci Surgical System to provide patients with state-of-the-art, personalized care close to home. “The da Vinci gives us an advanced set of instruments to use in performing robotic-assisted, minimally invasive surgery,” explains Dr. Holekamp.
The da Vinci system translates your surgeon’s hand positioning within a console into real-time maneuvering of multiple instruments during surgical intervention. The small-wristed instruments give surgeons the ability to bend and rotate at a greater degree and ultimately provides a wider range of motion. The da Vinci Vision System also delivers highly-magnified, 3D high-definition views of the surgical area. The instrument size makes it possible for surgeons to operate through small incisions on the skin’s surface. “Rectal cancer is often difficult to remove with growing in the narrow pelvis and the da Vinci is helpful when you’re working with limited space,” says Dr. Holekamp.
Following the resection surgery, John was able to return home in just four days.
Although 2020 might’ve been a stressful year for John battling rectal cancer, he will always remember the moment in December 2020 when Dr. Holekamp confirmed they eliminated all malignant cells, and his pathology tests showed that he was cancer-free—the best two words a cancer patient can hear.
“St. Clair truly showed that I was not just a number to them, I had a name and they knew it,” says John. During his entire treatment plan—from radiation treatments to surgery and finishing with chemotherapy—John could not express enough gratitude to all involved.
John is now back to enjoying life while tending to what matters most—restoring his home and nurturing his beautiful garden. He spends most of his time visiting with family and friends and always looks forward to celebrating his class reunion. “After my wife passed and spending 44 years together, I ran into a previous high school friend who is also a widow after being married 51 years. We reconnected at our class reunion (Class of ‘58) and now we choose to live life every day to the fullest.”
Scott Holekamp, M.D.
Dr. Holekamp specializes in colon and rectal surgery. He earned his medical degree at University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, and completed a residency in general surgery at Beth Israel Medical Center, New York City. He then completed a fellowship in colon and rectal surgery at the University of Miami /Jackson Memorial Hospital. He is board-certified by the American Board of Colon and Rectal Surgery and the American Board of Surgery. Dr. Holekamp practices with St. Clair Medical Group.
To contact Dr. Holekamp, please call 412.572.6192.