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Feature Story

Daunting Diagnosis Leads to Positive Lifestyle Change

April 4, 2018



Before and after weight loss pictures of man and woman Christian Emmel and his wife, Jane.

For Christian Emmel, the morning of June 15, 2017 started out as a Thursday like any other. That was, until he noticed that his stool in the toilet was completely black.

“That had never happened before in my life,” recalled Christian, senior consultant for Kaiser Permanente Health Plan Regulatory Services.

After consulting with his wife about this odd observation, he called the Kaiser Permanente help line to see what he should do and was advised to drive to the emergency room at the Panorama City Medical Center to get checked out.

“At this point, we didn’t feel that anything was urgently wrong aside from the visual,” he said. Ashish Sehgal, MD, decided to keep Christian overnight — which Christian had not expected — and ordered a colonoscopy and endoscopy for the next morning.

By Friday mid-afternoon, Christian learned that they found a tumor during his colonoscopy. He was unprepared for that news. Less than a month later, he had a laparoscopic sigmoidoscopy to remove the tumor and 15 lymph nodes, three of which tested positive for cancer presence. The pathology report led to a diagnosis of stage 3 colon cancer, with no metastasis.

“Prior to my diagnosis, I had not experienced any issues that would have indicated there was a problem … I was asymptomatic, which seems to be very common for colon cancer. I was also 49 at the time, so had not been previously screened. After receiving my diagnosis, I told myself that I wouldn’t look at survival rate data because that focuses on how many people have passed away. I’m alive! I want to know how many people are living after this type of diagnosis,” he said. “And then I asked myself, ‘how did I get here?’”

Christian began to assess his lifestyle and decided to take steps to improve his overall health, starting with what he was putting into his body. By switching out meats, foods with gluten and sugar for a more plant-based diet, including lots of vegetables and fruits, gluten-free foods and fewer dairy products, Christian says he feels much better.

He has lost 40 pounds, lowered his previously high blood pressure, was cleared to stop taking the cholesterol medication he needed before, is experiencing fewer allergies and has a better state of mind.

“I’m lucky to live in this day and age because I have access to fresh produce and healthy foods at stores and restaurants anywhere,” he said.

He finished his chemotherapy treatment and in December, had a CT scan. His oncologist, Andy Su, MD, confirmed the cancer still had not metastasized.

“From the get go, the nurses treating me at my bedside were amazing and all of my doctors worked together with me to create the best treatment plan,” Christian noted. His next follow-up colonoscopy is scheduled for July.

“I live a healthier active life now. Most people can’t tell I had something happen to me in the last eight months,” he says. “I don’t know what my prognosis is or how long I have, but no one else knows their future either and so I don’t focus on that. I do know that I am playing a large part in my overall health.”

How can you prevent colon cancer?

About 1 in 20 people will develop colon cancer at some point in their life, usually after the age of 50.

Most early stage colon cancers don’t cause symptoms. That’s why we recommend routine screening, starting at age 50, for people at normal risk. People at higher risk, including those with a family history of colon cancer, should be tested sooner. Talk to your doctor about when you should be tested.

There are several screening tests available. The two most commonly offered are the FIT test (done annually) or colonoscopy (done every 10 years).

Here are some other steps you can take to reduce your risk of colon cancer while improving your health:

  • Maintain a healthy body weight
  • Do something active every day
  • Eat a low-fat, high-fiber diet with whole grains and at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day
  • Cut down on red meat, dairy products and processed foods
  • Limit alcohol consumption to no more than one to two drinks per day
  • Quit smoking