Father and sons have rare hereditary form of cancer

When a doctor asks for your family medical history, he or she is not just being nosy – it can mean the difference between life and death.

Just ask the Smith family of the Cotton Grove community.

Tony Smith, 42, tested positive for colon cancer in February 2008. He had noticed some blood in his stool and just didn’t feel well. He went in for a colonoscopy.

“They told me I had more than 100 polyps,” Tony said, adding that a biopsy indicated advanced colon cancer.

Bloodwork also revealed the type of colon cancer he had was a rare inherited form of the disease. His three sons were then tested. His oldest son was fine, but his two 18-year-old twin sons, Wendall and Kendall, students at West Davidson High School, showed the same genetic marker as their father. His daughter, Destini, will be tested next month, when she reaches the age of 10.

“I took them myself for testing right away,” Tony said. “I was sort of shocked. … You just don’t expect your young’uns to have to face something like that. Blood work was the only reason we knew.”

Colonoscopies on the twins revealed each one of them had a little more than 50 polyps. Kendall’s polyps were all dormant, but Wendell’s had reached Stage 2, which means some were malignant.

“We weren’t really surprised, because we knew about the bloodwork, but I think it still shocked us a little,” Wendell said.

Tony said he was unaware of any family history of his own that would have tipped him off, except that he had been told his grandmother “was eaten up with cancer,” although he didn’t know what kind. He did note that two of his mother’s sisters had cancer, but it was not colon cancer, as far as he knows. His two sisters have been tested for the genetic marker, and they were both negative.

“And it can skip a generation, I was told,” Tony said.

Not long after his diagnosis, Tony had his large intestine and a small part of his liver removed in surgery at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem. “They told me it was Stage 4 then since it had spread to my liver,” he said.

After the surgery, he had chemotherapy and had to wear a colostomy bag for about seven months due to the chemotherapy. After that, reversal surgery was performed to allow for bowel function without the bag.

While all this was going on, Tony, who was out on disability for his cancer treatment, discovered that his employer, Stanley Furniture, closed the plant here and laid everyone off, which meant he had no health insurance to pay for all the surgeries and treatments.

But Baptist’s financial aid department worked with him and paid his Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act payments from Stanley’s insurance carrier so he could receive the needed treatments. COBRA provides former employees the right to temporary continuation of health coverage at group rates.

Tony finished up his last round of chemotherapy about a month ago, but he will have to undergo abdominal scans every three months to check for any recurrences. Doctors are also monitoring his lymph nodes, which are enlarged, but may be so simply from the chemotherapy.

The twins also both had their large intestines removed just days before Christmas last year at Duke Medical Center in Durham. Their mother’s insurance covered their surgeries. One has had the reversal surgery, and the other will have it in July. They did not need any chemotherapy, but both will have to undergo colonoscopies every year or two.

Tony said the whole experience has been difficult, but he appreciates the help they’ve received from numerous doctors and hospitals, as well as his former co-workers and church family members at Jersey Baptist Church, who have pitched in to help them. He also noted that Davidson County Cancer Services has covered his medication costs.

“I don’t know what we would’ve done without help from family and friends,” he said.

Tony said he wants to encourage anyone with a known family history of colon cancer to have a colonoscopy if they show any symptoms, regardless of their age.

“You’re better safe than sorry,” he said.

“We all just try to be positive,” Kendall said.

“Whatever it takes, that’s what we do,” Tony said. “I hope, eventually, to get back to work. But right now it’s kind of at a standstill. But we just try to stay positive and enjoy life day to day.”

Vikki Broughton Hodges can be reached at 249-3981, ext. 214, or at [email protected]

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