Vermont man benefits from breakthrough rectal cancer treatment

Published: Mar. 18, 2020 at 5:38 PM EDT
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March is Colorectal cancer awareness month. Upwards of 55,000 Americans each year get rectal cancer, and that number is rising, especially among people under the age of 50. The UVM Cancer Center is at the tail end of a trial that could change the lives of patients with some rectal cancer.

"It's a pretty good deal," said Terence Irwin, talking about his cancer treatment.

When the 72-year-old music teacher from Pittsford, better known as 'Bear,' found out he had a rectal tumor back in December 2015, he thought he'd only have one option. "I was pretty sure that it would involve surgery," Irwin said.

But after conversations with the team at the University of Vermont Medical Center and UVM Cancer Center, he learned there was another option. A clinical trial that, if it worked,would allow him get rid of the tumor without going under the knife.

"The other good news is that you get to live with all of your organs. How can you beat that deal?" Irwin said.

Rectal cancer is a bad disease." said Dr. Peter Cataldo, a UVM surgeon on the team that treated Irwin. He says most people who have rectal cancer have to have a permanent colostomy, a life-changing event affecting bowel, urinary, and sexual function.

The whole idea of the Organ Preservation in Rectal Adenocarcinoma, or OPRA trial, is to cure the cancer and leave the rectum alone, because most people would prefer to keep their rectum.

The study began at a hospital in New Yorkm, but the UVM team is a big participant. They've done this type of treatment on more than 30 patients here over the past six to seven years and are seeing promising results.

Dr. Peter Cataldo: Seventy percent of the patients we've had at UVM have saved themselves an operation on their rectum.

Reporter Cat Viglienzoni: That sounds huge.

Dr. Peter Cataldo: It's huge. It's giant. It's the biggest change in the management of any disease I've taken care of in the past 30 years. Nothing even comes close.

Irwin has been cancer free for four years now and says he's now sharing his story for the first time publicly because he wants other people to know they may have options. There were side effects during treatment, but those are gone and his organs are not.

"I figure I'm in the last quarter, but I'm not in the two-minute warning," Irwin said.

His other message -- get tested. That's because the earlier it gets diagnosed the less likely you are to need surgery.