Dawn Zellner, MD, knows the importance of cancer screenings. She knows that early detection of cancer saves lives. And she knows that recommended ages for cancer screenings are the result of personal history, risk factors and medical trends.
But she’s also a busy 42-year-old mother of three as well as an emergency room physician at Bon Secours St. Francis. She has always found it easier to take care of others over herself. And although her family history meant that she was recommended to have a colonoscopy at age 40, her hectic life resulted in her finally making that appointment two years later.
“I put it off because I was busy,” Dawns shares. “I’m a doctor, I’m a mom, I’m busy, I’m used to putting myself last.”
She finally made the appointment for her colonoscopy in January 2022.
“As soon as I woke up after having my screening, I looked at the doctor, who is my friend, and I knew,” she recalls.
Dr. Zellner, who had been taking care of others most of her life, now had to take on the role of patient. She was diagnosed with a stage 3 tumor in her rectum and was recommended to start treatment immediately.
After her diagnosis, Dr. Zellner sought out a second opinion – something she said she recommends all patients do. Not that she didn’t like or trust her doctors, but she said it is something that helps ease a patient’s mind. With both recommendations, she felt confident as she began her treatment journey.
Treatment begins with a five-week plan of oral chemotherapy, radiation and then a check to see if the tumor is shrinking. The second phase is to undergo chemo infusions for four months before checking the size of the tumor again. At that point, Dr. Zellner will have to consider getting surgery.
Unfortunately, the treatment does not go without side effects. Dr. Zellner notes that chemo causes nausea. As for radiation, it results in pain and discomfort. She acknowledged that colorectal cancer is not a topic that patients usually enjoy talking about. But Dr. Zellner shares that she is determined to speak about her experience to inform and help others.
“The reason I wanted to do this is because, like a lot of doctors and like a lot of people, I’m not very good at taking care of myself,” she says. “I’m very good at taking care of others and therefore I waited two years to get my colonoscopy. But I want people to learn from my mistake and get their screening exams per their doctor’s recommendations.”
Dr. Zellner continues, “we make screening recommendations for a reason and that reason is that we want to catch cancer early. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 60 percent of colon cancers could be prevented with proper screening. Additionally, a colonoscopy at age 45 could be the key to a long and healthy life.”
March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. In addition to undergoing her own treatment, Dr. Zellner is spreading the word about the importance of screenings and is helping local organizations that assist those who are underinsured or without insurance gain access to these life-saving tests.
Her message is simple and consistent – take the time. It could save your life.
“If you think you’re too busy to get a colonoscopy, you’re way too busy to have to go through chemotherapy and radiation.”