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An ulcerative colitis flare led to dad, 34, receiving colon cancer diagnosis: EXCLUSIVE

Even after getting the flare under control, Michael Sheridan's bowel movements didn't seem right. It was early onset colon cancer.
/ Source: TODAY

In 2009, Michael Sheridan was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a type of inflammatory bowel disease. Through “trial and error,” he eventually found ways to control his symptoms. Suddenly in 2019, they returned.

After losing his hair from chemotherapy, Michael Sheridan decided to grow it long.
After losing his hair from chemotherapy, Michael Sheridan decided to grow it long. Courtesy Michael Sheridan

“I started to have a flare up and it came out of the blue and hit me hard,” Sheridan, 36, of Lancaster, Ohio tells TODAY.com. “I was able to get it back under control relatively quickly within a few months.” Still, he contacted his gastroenterologist for a follow-up and they scheduled a colonoscopy, which was canceled when the COVID-19 pandemic started in 2020. In December 2020, he finally got an appointment where doctors discovered he had stage 3 colon cancer.

“The found a stricture, which was actually the tumor,” he says. “The stricture was big enough or tight enough that they had to use a pediatric scope. They were only able to scope about half of my colon.”

Colon cancer and ulcerative colitis

In 2019, Sheridan experienced the sudden onset of ulcerative colitis symptoms.

“It was weird that I had a flare up,” he says. “Even with the flare under control things weren’t quite where they should be.”

For about seven years prior, Sheridan’s ulcerative colitis was so well controlled that he hadn’t needed to visit his doctor. He reached out to his gastroenterologist and scheduled an appointment to make sure everything was OK.

“There were changes,” he says. “The caliber of my bowel movements had changed and gotten smaller.”

Otherwise, he felt healthy.

“I felt great. I was strong. I was starting to exercise,” Sheridan says. “We had a new daughter.”

When he finally had his colonoscopy in December 2020, being diagnosed with cancer “was really shocking.”

“The doctor he explained to me, ‘I think it’s just a normal stricture. This thing happens sometimes,’” Sheridan recalls. “But then he called me a week later, which ended up being Christmas Eve and told me it was a tumor.”

After the holidays, Sheridan sought out oncologists to come up with a treatment plan. Some wanted to remove his entire colon because it would lower his risk of recurrence. But the tumor only appeared to be in the sigmoid colon. It seemed the rest of his colon was healthy.

“There’s other downsides to taking the colon. It’s an organ in the body and if it works, it’s really helpful,” Sheridan says.  

While receiving chemotherapy, Michael Sheridan did not have to shave at all and started losing his hair.
While receiving chemotherapy, Michael Sheridan did not have to shave at all and started losing his hair.Courtesy Michael Sheridan

He found a doctor who thought a sigmoidectomy, taking out the sigmoid colon, would be enough to remove the entire tumor and have clear margins without removing the entire colon.

“They did the sigmoidectomy,” Sheridan says. “Once the tumor was analyzed and they checked my lymph nodes, they came back with stage 3B. I had five of 51 lymph nodes positive (for cancer).”

Doctors gave him a temporary ostomy, a surgically-implanted pouch that collects bodily waste outside of the body, to help his colon recover. Healing felt tough at times especially because he had three children at the time, including a 6-month-old daughter.

“The hardest part was not being able to pick her up,” Sheridan says. “It was painful and moving around was difficult but mentally the hardest part was not picking up my daughter and getting to hold her for six weeks.”

Adjusting to having something attached to him felt tough, too.

“It’s not a whole lot of fun,” Sheridan says. “It’s definitely a lifesaver for a lot of folks. But I was glad, going through that experience, that I didn’t have to lose my colon.”

Sheridan underwent seven rounds of chemotherapy though he was originally scheduled for 12 rounds. To bolster his treatments, he received acupuncture and fasted before an infusion and then had a lymphatic massage following treatment.

“I would go in the next day for a lymphatic massage just to help move the chemo through my lymphatic system more effectively,” Sheridan explains.

He kept detailed records of how he felt after treatment and monitored symptoms, including neuropathy — nerve damage sometimes brought on by chemo. When the neuropathy began, he worried about how the changes would affect him in the long term and spoke to his doctors about what they could do to address it.

“We ended up deciding to cut the chemo short just because I started having some neuropathy that wasn’t going away, which is kind of the first sign of being permanent damage,” Sheridan says. “We did do that second colonoscopy, and the rest of my colon was clean. There were no other tumors, there was no other dysplasia or anything. Everything looked very healthy.”

Colon cancer and inflammatory bowel disease

Colon cancer has been increasing in young people, and it is the most common cause of cancer deaths in men under 50, according to a recent report from the American Cancer Society.

“The specific cause for early onset colorectal cancer is still unknown,” Dr. Ning Jin, a medical oncologist at the James The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, and one of Sheridan’s doctor, tells TODAY.com. “However, epidemiology studies suggest that sporadic early onset colorectal cancer is likely to be associated with lifestyle changes, such as diet and sedentary lifestyle, smoking, alcohol and other food additives.”

People with inflammatory bowel disease have a slightly increased risk of developing the cancer.

“Inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, are characterized by chronic inflammation. It does carry the risk for developing colorectal cancer,” Jin explains. “The chronic inflammation can cause ... abnormal cell growth and transform into a malignancy.”

While people with low risk of colorectal cancer should start colonoscopies at age 45, those with inflammatory bowel disease should begin screening earlier, generally eight years after they received their diagnosis, Jin explains.

“Colonoscopy is highly recommended because if there’s a cancer (in an IBD patient) their lesions are more flat and they’re very difficult to be detected by other methods, such as the so-called virtual colonoscopy,” she says. 

To help with his recovery, doctors gave Michael Sheridan a colostomy bag. After treatment ended it was reversed.
To help with his recovery, doctors gave Michael Sheridan a colostomy bag. After treatment ended it was reversed. Courtesy Michael Sheridan

For a virtual colonoscopy, a less invasive way to examine the colon and rectum, a radiologist uses X-rays and a computer to find ulcers, polyps and cancer, according the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. The organization notes they “may not be as effective as colonoscopy at finding certain polyps.”

There can be overlap in inflammatory bowel symptoms and colon cancer symptoms, such as having bloody stool. That’s why it is important for IBD patients to have regular colonoscopies and talk to the doctor when symptoms occur.

“Everybody needs to be aware,” Jin says. “For younger patients, if they have those symptoms and signs, please (ask) your physician and be aware of the risk of early onset colorectal cancer.”

Recovery

After chemotherapy finished, Sheridan had surgery to reverse his ostomy in June 2021. He has no evidence of disease. While the neuropathy went away and his hair started growing back, Sheridan has been grappling with the emotions of having cancer.

“You’re thinking about how you view yourself and even your trust in your own body,” he says.

Still, the experience revealed some positives, too. Because he was sick, he spent a lot of time watching his children grow, and he and his wife welcomed a fourth child.

“The whole process really showed me how much I love to be around my kids,” he says. “The whole process helped to reorient me in my mind and helped me become less afraid of change.”

Sheridan engaged in informed consent with his doctors, meaning there was an open dialogue about treatments and approaches. The mechanical engineer often brought research papers and detailed notes about how he was feeling to meetings with doctors. He believes that helped him receive the best care.

“You're your own advocate,” he says. “There have been great strides in the last 10 years, five years with cancer research. … It’s really come a long way.”