For Colon Cancer, 70 is the New 50

PHOTO: Richard Fisher of Marion County, Ohio was diagnosed with stage IV Colon Cancer seven years ago at the age of 68.
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Richard Fisher of Marion County, Ohio, first received a colon cancer diagnosis about seven years ago at the age of 68. After he noticed some blood in his stool, a colonoscopy revealed he was in the advanced stages of the disease.

"The doctor told me he didn't care if I got treatment or not because either way I only had six months to live," the retired farmer and construction worker recalled.

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Fisher said he felt the doctor wrote him off, mostly because of his age. It seemed like he never considered that someone approaching 70 would be able to survive the aggressive treatment needed to bring his condition under control, Fisher said.

After the initial shock wore off, the Fisher family took action. One of his three daughters had a friend who worked at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center in Columbus. She put in a call and got him an appointment.

Right from the start, Fisher said he knew he was in the right place. The medical team immediately began his treatment. First he had surgery, then intensive chemotherapy.

There were a lot of highs and lows during that first phase of care, Fisher admitted, but he got through it. He was virtually cancer-free for almost two years before the initial drugs lost their potency. The Ohio State team then switched him to a new chemo drug that allowed three more years of good health. Once those stopped working about two years ago, he opted to try experimental treatment as part of two separate clinical trials.

"In the seven years I've had treatment, no one at OSU has ever given us a time limit like that first doctor," his wife Martha Fisher said. "It's wrong to tell anybody, even if they're 70, 80 or 90 that you have a time limit on your life."

Treating Older Patients

Dr. Richard Goldberg, one of Fisher's doctors, a gastrointestinal medical oncologist and physician in chief at OSU, said doctors are beginning to realize that just because someone has celebrated a lot of birthdays doesn't mean they can't withstand the rigors of cancer therapy.

"As we gain more experience, doctors are learning we can do pretty big procedures on older people and if they are healthy and active we can get them through just fine," Goldberg said.

Goldberg said that many of his older patients have responded surprisingly well to cancer treatment and, have gone on to lead full and active lives for years afterwards. It helps that many of them are also willing to consider enrolling in clinical trials that study the benefits of experimental drugs.

Related: Not Enough People Are Getting Screened for Colon Cancer

"I'm very glad I've participated in the clinical trials," Fisher said. "I enjoyed a lot of life in the last seven years and I feel happy to help those who come later."

Fisher said he's hopeful the combination of chemotherapy and other drugs he's been taking in this latest clinical trial are working. He's gained weight and feels stronger than he has in several months. Goldberg will test him in a few weeks to see whether the cancer is still growing or has stopped advancing.

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