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Sarasota Wednesday, Apr. 14, 2021 1 year ago

Sarasota attorney shares story of colon cancer survival

A colonoscopy helped save Stefan Campagna's life. A recent report found more than 200,000 Americans missed their colonoscopies in 2020.
by: Mark Bergin Staff Writer

Sarasota-based attorney Stefan Campagna realized something was wrong in summer 2019.

Campagna had blood in his stool and digestive discomfort.

“They just dismissed it as, ‘Oh, it’s probably just your digestive tract is irritated,’” Campagna said.

Eventually, it led to testing and a colonoscopy in December 2019. Florida Digestive Health Specialists gastrointestinal Dr. Brent Murchie discovered a large mass. 

“It’s one of those cases that kind of slapped me in the face, and I think probably the main thing is because of his age,” Murchie said.

Dr. Brent Murchie discovered Stefan Campagna's mass in December 2019.

Campagna was 33 when doctors diagnosed him with Stage IV colorectal cancer.

“I think my body was devoid of all feelings at that point,” Campagna said.

Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of death from cancer in the U.S. Men and women age 50 and older are at relatively the same risk of developing the disease, and it is recommended to start getting screened at age 45, regardless of whether you're experiencing symptoms.

“What patients need to realize is that colon cancer typically has symptoms when it's in a more advanced stage,” Murchie said.

In the past 20 years, agencies have seen an increase in colon cancer diagnoses before age 50. Screenings are the best chance at early detection by finding abnormal growths before they turn into cancer.

AmSurg published a report that found more than 200,000 Americans missed their colonoscopies in 2020. The American Cancer Society estimated there would be about 148,000 new cases of colorectal cancer in 2020. 

“It’s very important that, especially in the COVID era, that people do not ignore the recommended guidelines for screening and surveillance for colon cancer,” Murchie said.

Although the primary causes for colorectal cancer are unknown, there are risk factors to be aware of. For example, individuals who are Black or are Jewish of eastern European descent are at a higher risk, though the reasons for this are not yet fully understood, according to nationwide support organization Cancer Care. 

Eating such foods as sausage, bacon and beef can increase the risk of developing colon cancer. In 2015, the World Health Organization categorized these foods in its group one of carcinogens.

Murchie said having a high-fiber diet can help reduce the risk of advanced colon polyps, which is what potentially develops into colon cancer over time. High-fiber foods include raspberries, apples, bananas, strawberries, peas and broccoli.

Obesity is also a well-known modifiable risk factor for colon cancer. Exercising regularly helps reduce that risk.

Murchie recommends people follow their routine medical care.

“What we’re trying to do is to do primary prevention,” Murchie said. “Primary prevention means let’s try and prevent you from getting the disease in the first place.”

A potential symptom, rectal bleeding is often a nonconcerning pathology, such as a hemorrhoid or inflammation of the colon wall. However, it’s worth getting checked if it lasts for a while.

“If rectal bleeding is coming from a cancer, it’s probably in a more advanced stage,” Murchie said.

At the time of his diagnosis, Campagna and his wife, Camile, had a 2-year-old son and a baby girl on the way.

In a March 2018 photo, Teen Court board member Stefan Campagna poses for a picture with his wife, Camile, and son, Jaxon.

“My CRNA kind of looked at me and said, ‘His wife is due to deliver in a few months,’” Murchie said. “My heart just sank right then and there.”

Doctors told Campagna he had up to five years to live if he opted for maintenance chemotherapy.

Campagna decided to undergo two surgeries, one of which included hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy, where heated chemotherapy is applied directly into the abdomen after surgery. The process is deemed high-risk, and recipients have to hit several benchmarks to qualify for the treatment. 

Campagna said he knew the surgeries were his only chance of becoming cancer-free.

“I remember being on the table, and [the] surgeon comes in, and they’re starting to administer anesthesia, and I just told him, ‘Hey, look, man... I don’t want to come off this operating table with cancer,’” Campagna said. “‘Either I come off cancer-free, or I don’t come off at all.’”

Campagna elected to undergo two additional months of chemotherapy after his final surgery. He credits his family, doctors and medical personnel for his recovery.

Stefan Campagna is a father of two.

In May 2020, Camile gave birth to their daughter. Because Campagna was going through chemotherapy treatment and the COVID-19 pandemic had struck, he could not risk being inside the hospital when she gave birth. Campagna stood in the parking lot with a sign, so his wife could see him from her window.

“I don’t know how it’s possible to do what she did, but it’s the reason why I’m still here,” Campagna said of his wife.

It’s been eight months since Campagna’s last chemotherapy treatment. He still undergoes regular checkups and screenings.

“I’m still within the first year even of being cancer-free,” Campagna said. “I’m still … just running from that ghost that’s over my shoulder.”

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Mark Bergin is the Longboat Key Town Hall reporter for the Observer. He has previously worked as a senior digital producer at WTSP, the CBS affiliate in St. Petersburg. Mark is a graduate of the University of Missouri and grew up in the Chicagoland area.

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