For One Patient, a USU Alum Made All the Difference in Colon Cancer Diagnosis

Mr. James Lee administers intravenous therapy to Ms. Susan Burgditt May 13, 2011, in the Wilford Hall Medical Center Hematology and Oncology Clinic, Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. Miss Burgditt received the treatment as part of her struggle with cancer. Mr. Lee is a hematology and oncology clinical nurse. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Robert Barnett)

By Sharon Holland

Erica Slaughter was a healthy, active 28-year-old Air Force enlisted service member attached to Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, in 2008.  So when she developed constipation, she didn’t really think anything was seriously wrong, but she sought medical advice anyway. She was told to eat more fiber, drink more water, and exercise more. But that didn’t help it go away.  

In January 2009, her symptoms worsened. She was now experiencing significant pain before bowel movement, and while on a trip out of state, Slaughter added rectal bleeding to her list of medical issues. Her husband urged her to get checked out, so when they returned to South Carolina, she went to see her new doctor. After a squadron realignment, Slaughter had landed under the Aerospace Medicine squadron, which caused a change to her medical team assignment. Retired Air Force Col. (Dr.) Bryan Funke, an alumnus of the Uniformed Services University class of 1985, was now her primary healthcare provider.  

Funke did a number of tests, which didn’t reveal much, but he didn’t stop there, Slaughter said.  Instead, Funke suggested a colonoscopy, just “to be on the safe side.” Slaughter was referred to a local civilian hospital for the procedure. When it was over, as she was coming out of the anesthesia, she awoke to find her husband crying over her. He had overheard a nurse telling another provider that “Erica has cancer.” As her husband explained why he was distraught, Slaughter also began crying.  

Retired Air Force Col. (Dr.) Bryan Funke was the primary healthcare provider for Erica Slaughter, and recommended the colonoscopy that would reveal Slaughter's colon cancer. These days, Slaughter is thankfully cancer-free. (Courtesy photo)
Retired Air Force Col. (Dr.) Bryan Funke was the primary
healthcare provider for Erica Slaughter, and 
colonoscopy that would reveal Slaughter's colon cancer.
These days, Slaughter is thankfully cancer-free.
(Courtesy photo)
“I was scared to death. Very emotional. I couldn’t stop crying,” she said. Her thoughts immediately turned to her children. “I have a four-year-old and a seven-year-old. What’s going to happen to them? They won’t remember me.” Slaughter said that no one was saying anything to her, and left to her own thoughts, she immediately went to the worst case scenario:  “I guess I’m going to die tomorrow.” 

Colon cancer starts with formation of polyps that can be removed easily during a colonoscopy.  But, if left intact and untreated, polyps can turn cancerous. However, the process is usually slow, so early detection is key. 

"Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer affecting both males and females in the United States," says Funke. "Approximately 151,030 new cases of large bowel cancer are diagnosed annually in the United States. Colorectal cancer is diagnosed after the onset of symptoms, or through screening colonoscopy or using noninvasive stool-based testing, such as fecal occult blood testing via fecal immunochemical test or guaiac fecal occult blood test in the majority of patients. Screening of asymptomatic individuals for colorectal cancer is advocated by major societies and preventive care organizations. Screening has been shown to detect asymptomatic early-stage malignancy and improve mortality." 

According to Funke, the United States Preventive Services Task Force recently changed recommendations to start screening at age 45 for most individuals. Those with family history of colorectal cancer, he says, "should start screening 10 years before the age of the youngest family member at diagnosis." 

Devastated after her second-hand diagnosis, Slaughter, who had still not been directly told by the civilian team that she had cancer, was then scheduled for surgery. She finally confronted a nurse and asked her, “What’s going on?  Do I have cancer?” The nurse confirmed her fears.  

Convinced she was going to die, Slaughter now also worried she would be kicked out of the Air Force first. She turned once again to Funke, who helped her navigate through her concerns.  

"Approximately 80 percent of cancers are localized to the colon wall and/or regional nodes," explains Funke, when asked about the need for surgery in colon cancer patients. "Surgery is the only curative modality for localized colon cancer. The goal of surgery for invasive cancer is complete removal of the tumor, the major vascular pedicle, and the lymphatic drainage basin of the affected colon segment. For patients who have undergone potentially curative resection of a colon cancer, the goal of postoperative chemotherapy is to eradicate micrometastases, thereby reducing the likelihood of disease recurrence and increasing the cure rate."

A little more than a week after her cancer was discovered, Slaughter had surgery to remove a section of her colon and 20 lymph nodes. Doctors also removed her appendix. After several days in the hospital, she got the news that the surgeon believed he was able to remove all of  the cancer and that the lymph nodes were also clear.  The next step was referral to an oncologist. 

The oncologist started her on chemotherapy in March and she went through treatment for six months. After the first week, she started experiencing side effects. Slaughter said for three months, she drove herself to treatment every Monday, then went to work afterwards. Each week she would get more anxious, more nauseous and more sick.  

“Chemo was probably the worst part. It made me sick. I would sit in the parking lot of the chemo facility and I would wait until after the appointment time, hoping they would say that since I had missed the appointment time, it was canceled. But that didn’t happen. I really struggled...I thought, ‘if I don’t go to work to show that I can be better, the military is going to kick me out’.  

Slaughter relayed through tears as she explained her sense of dread and feelings of isolation.  “I dealt with it on my own for a long time, but I finally told my husband, and he started driving me.” She also stopped going right back to work and instead, started taking the day after chemo off from work to recuperate.  

These days, Slaughter is cancer-free. She retired from the Air Force in 2019, but is an advocate for seeking care and talking to your health care provider.  In fact, after she was diagnosed, everyone in her family got tested, despite no family history of colon cancer. Her brother showed three cancerous polyps, which were detected early because of what his sister was going through.  

“The hard part about colon cancer is that it’s a private area. If you’re having issues, you need to talk to your doctor.  I promise you, they’ve seen more, and heard worse. Don’t be embarrassed,” she advises.  

Slaughter said through it all Funke was a source of comfort to her. “He listened to me.  He really listened to my symptoms of what was going on. He did tests, didn’t find anything, but didn’t stop. He made me feel like a person. He went the extra mile. He showed me that he really cared. He would check in -- call me to say ‘how are you doing? How are you feeling? Do you need anything? Don’t worry about anything.’ He really brought an ease and a lot of calm to what was a pretty scary time for me. He basically saved my life and I’m so grateful.”