ST. GEORGE — Talking about family health history may not be the easiest conversation at the Thanksgiving dinner table, but Spencer and Jennifer Stucki are sharing their story to let people know how important knowing that history is, especially for colon cancer.
When asked what both Jennifer and Spencer love most about each other, their answers couldn’t be more in sync.
"As I got to know him, it was definitely his heart. He is one of the kindest, most generous people you've ever met,” Jennifer said.
Spencer also immediately replied: "Her heart! The way she loves.”
Three years ago, at age 35, Spencer became a dad to three kids instantly when he married Jen. The kids affectionately call him “Spence Daddy.” He said marrying Jennifer was the easiest decision.
"It was everything I hoped and dreamed for. I had been waiting for so long just to find my wife, but to have kids and a wife — what I wanted for my whole life ... my dreams were fulfilled," Spencer said.
They met and married within eight months.
"When I met him, he had big, giant arms and was going to the gym five or six times a week,” Jennifer said.
She said Spencer was the epitome of health. With a long history of diabetes in his family "he wanted to take matters into his own hands and stay healthy,” she said.
“He'd been doing the Keto diet for almost 16 years, and he was just really health-conscious about what he ate and how he took care of his body,” she said. They even started a family Keto-friendly ice cream business together.
But nine months into their marriage the unimaginable happened. "He got a cold that just wouldn't go away, with a really bad fever and, and so that was kind of the first really outward sign that we had that something was wrong," Jennifer said.
Spencer started losing energy. "I'd go to the gym and I'd be able to do two-thirds of my workouts, and then half, and then a third," he described.
Jennifer said one day her husband woke up with blood in his underwear and doctors noticed he was anemic. Spencer was eventually diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer.
"It was a complete shock,” Jennifer said. Spencer was only 36 years old.
By the time of the diagnosis, the cancer had already spread to Spencer's liver. "He had over 20 metastases," Jennifer said.
Spencer has had more than 46 chemotherapy treatments, in addition to specialized radiation treatments. Jennifer said the side effects of treatment have included neuropathy, sensitivity to cold, ulcers and a lot of pain.
Intermountain Healthcare's Dr. Mark Lewis says more people are being diagnosed with colon cancer at a younger age, especially in Utah.
“Many of the families here in Utah can trace their ancestry to a small number of families. We call that founder effect,” Lewis explained. “And in that small group of families, there may have been an enhanced risk genetically for these types of cancers and they've been passed down through the generations.”
Lewis said 1 in 7 people in his practice affected by colorectal cancer is under the age of 50. He referenced a 2017 study that shows a 22% increase in colon cancer diagnoses and a 13% increase in the mortality rate in patients under the age of 50.
The American Cancer Society is now recommending people at average risk to get a colonoscopy at age 45 instead of 50. But Lewis said it’s different for those who have a family history of the disease.
Lewis urges people with a first-degree relative who had colon cancer to start screening 10 years before the age of that individual's diagnosis.
Spencer Stucki’s mother died of colon cancer, but he said he didn’t have a genetic marker for the disease. "It's a silent killer. You don't know until it's too late,” he said.
Often when Lewis talks with his patients, they are missing important details in their family health history. He said it’s important to know a relative’s exact diagnosis and age of diagnosis.
Lewis also encourages people to not overlook symptoms. "We look for, again, bleeding and anemia, abdominal pain, unintentional weight loss; all these things together really are concerning,” the doctor described.
He said anemia is a big red flag because “no man should ever be low on iron for any reason."
Lewis encourages people to not shy away from talking about it with their doctor if they are having problems with their gut.
"It's a private thing. It's not a comfortable thing to talk about,” he acknowledged. "But it really is important for people to know the patterns of cancer in their own family."
Lewis said it’s extremely common for someone to assume that a gastrointestinal issue is benign. He said those issues are often misdiagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome.
While a colonoscopy does require some prep work and is more invasive than other routine screenings, Lewis said it a really powerful procedure because doctors can remove precancerous polyps before they become an issue.
Lewis said researchers aren’t quite sure why more people are being diagnosed at a younger age, but he said it likely includes a combination of genes, environment, lifestyle and luck.
Right now, the Stuckis are cherishing the time they have left with Spencer. "He has done it with his head held high and with a smile on his face every single day,” Jennifer said.
Spencer said they're relying on God. "I couldn't do this without him,” he said through tears.
Intermountain Healthcare has partnered with the Huntsman Cancer Institute on a program for adolescents and young adults who have been diagnosed with cancer.
“That's the time in people's lives when they're starting families, they're finishing school, they're entering careers,” Lewis said. “It is enormously disruptive to have a cancer diagnosis at any age, but patients in that age range are particularly vulnerable.”
Lewis said the program offers additional support for all sorts of needs including financial, legal, employment and even fertility needs.