Colon cancer patient helps others get screened

HealthDiseases and IllnessesCancerColon Cancer

Colon cancer -- it's the disease that took the life of Robin Gibb. It is a preventable disease, yet many shy away from the screening. One local woman fighting advanced colon cancer herself has another mission -- to show you how to survive.

It was a great time in Trish Simon's life. A new baby boy, Ian, to join big brother Nicolas. Jobs she loved as a community health nurse and a member of the Bartlett Fire Department. But strange health symptoms left her puzzled. What started as odd cramping turned to serious pain.

Trish Simon: "Really almost doubling over."

A scan showed a nine centimeter mass on one ovary and a five centimeter mass on the other. Trish's doctor suggested immediate surgery.

Trish Simon: "He said, 'I'm not leaving a nine centimeter mass in you. We gotta figure out what it is. We gotta take it out.'"

The masses came out along with Trish's uterus and ovaries -- a full hysterectomy. Doctors braced her for a diagnosis of ovarian cancer, but a pathology report came back with a surprising find.

Trish Simon: "It did not come back with any ovarian cells. It came back with colon cells."

A tiny, but powerful tumor in her GI tract had eaten through her colon and spread.

Trish Simon: "If I would have had a colonoscopy and seen that, it would have stopped it from eating and spreading throughout my abdomen."

But at the age of 32 and with no family history, getting screened wasn't on Trish's radar.

Trish Simon: "No, I'm not the classic person, but …"

But that's not stopping Trish. Before she got out of the hospital, her friends, neighbors and fellow firefighters -- known as Team Trish -- had rallied around her and her family.

Trish Simon: "Just to get so many police and fire and friends and family, so many different facets from work. It was amazing. It literally fueled me!"

And so did the idea of early detection.

Trish Simon: "We need everybody to get out there and get screened."

She may not be a text book case, but Trish is determined to find others who may be, especially those without health insurance who can't afford the pricey procedure -- a colonoscopy can cost up to $10,000.

Dr. Brain Muska, Alexian Brothers Gastroenterologist: "It's something we've always thought about. How can we get more people to come in?"

Gastroenterologist Brain Muska was the first to embrace Trish's idea.

Dr. Muska: "The symptoms of colon cancer can be anything. Most of the time there are no symptoms. There may be bleeding, abdominal pain, a change in bowel habits. There are no pain fibers in the colon. It's not until this cancer gets outside the colon into other tissues that you might feel discomfort."

Trish Simon: "If you remove that polyp you can prevent it! The only cancer you can actually remove something and prevent it!"

And so with the support of Alexian Brothers Health System, Trish and Dr. Muska held the first free screening for patients at high risk. The hospital donated supplies and operating room time. Nurses and anesthesiologists volunteered their services. Then, a sign of how critical their work really was.

Dr. Muska: "The first patient we did the first time had colon cancer. It was an out of body experience to know we started doing this and the first gentlemen we had had colon cancer."

So far they've held three events -- 36 patients have undergone free colonoscopies.

Trish Simon: "Out of 36, 30 had polyps. Yes, it's an expensive test, but can you imagine what you're preventing? Chemotherapy is expensive. I can show you the bills."

For six years now, Trish has been fighting stage 4 colon cancer. Her husband, Jeff, and two sons keep her spirits up, as does her work organizing the free screenings.

Trish Simon: "Someone called it my legacy. I don't know, that's kind of a deep word. I don't want cancer to define me, but in the last year it has. I want my kids to define me. I want someone to look at me and say she was all about her kids. They're my pride and joy."

Trish and Dr. Muska would like to see other hospitals step up like Alexian Brothers has. If you'd like to learn more about the Alexian Brothers health System, go to or To learn more about Trish Simon, check out

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