Hereditary cancer diagnosis a catalyst for colorectal cancer awareness and prevention

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Anita Harris

Cancer genetic testing provided insight, options for her and family

Although she was diagnosed with colon cancer and inherited a cancer gene, Anita Harris of Huntington Woods is thankful.

She lives by the words of John F. Kennedy, “To those whom much is given, much is expected.”

“I live each day with a grateful heart! I am so thankful for my health and team of Beaumont doctors monitoring and assisting with my cancer surveillance,” said Harris. “I am grateful for my job, my classroom, my colleagues and the students and families I serve. I am also thankful to have a career I love and the opportunity to contribute and provide for my loving, supportive family. I work hard, savor the moments and celebrate the unexpected.”

Six years ago

At 48, Harris was the picture of health. She exercised and lived a healthy lifestyle. Then, after experiencing occasional stomach aches and a change in bowel habits, she had a colonoscopy in July 2012. The colonoscopy detected a tumor.


Her biopsy was inconclusive, but suspicious. The next thing she knew, Harris was meeting with Beaumont surgeon, Jason Shellnut, M.D., to schedule a surgery.

Back then, she posted on Facebook, “My time to rock n’ roll and take care of business is Monday. It will involve cutting, removing and reattaching the colon, ugh! So here I am sharing my story with you. The crazy thing is I read this stuff that others write- I never, never, NEVER, imagined I’d be the one composing these details … I am nervous … Life is a roller coaster and I want to enjoy the ride.”


Harris’ surgery at Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak, six years ago, went well. Dr. Shellnut removed the tumor. Anita, now 54, explained she felt lucky when her doctor told her she had stage 1 colon cancer.

Six weeks following her surgery, Harris learned her tumor had markers suggestive of Lynch syndrome, the most common form of genetic colon cancer. Dana Zakalik, M.D., corporate medical director, Cancer Genetics Program, Beaumont, Royal Oak, explained all colorectal tumors go through the Lynch syndrome universal screening protocol, “We’re looking for markers that might warrant further evaluation and testing. Genetic mutations account for 5 to 10 percent of all colorectal cancers. Lynch syndrome accounts for about 3 percent.”

Genetic testing

In Harris’ case, blood tests revealed she inherited the gene for Lynch syndrome. Said Dr. Zakalik, “Not everyone who inherits the gene will develop colorectal cancer, however, the risk is very high – about 80 percent.”

Harris quickly learned Lynch syndrome is a hereditary condition that causes greater risk of developing certain cancers, especially colon and uterine cancers.

She said, “It’s not a great thing being told I have Lynch syndrome, but it is what it is and if I have an opportunity to turn a negative into a positive, then I will.”

The youngest of eight children, Harris was not aware of any family history of cancer. After the news, she did share the information about Lynch syndrome with her siblings and parents. Subsequently, her parents and three children were tested.

“Genetics is the future of medicine,” said Harris. “I’ve learned much in such a short time. I’m grateful my cancer was caught early. I also know there are options to help prevent or lower my risk of developing future cancers.” In fact, Harris underwent a preventive or prophylactic hysterectomy and oophorectomy.


Harris says health-wise, the past five years have been uneventful. She has annual colonoscopies, breast exams and skin checks. Every other year, she has endoscopy. After 30 years, she still enjoys teaching in her classroom, travel and spending time with her husband, son and two daughters.


Who is at risk of developing colorectal cancer and who should consider testing for Lynch syndrome? A family history of cancer and diagnosis under the age of 50 are two risk factors. Those individuals should be referred to a genetic counselor.

Mission to educate

During March, Harris has made it her mission to educate family and friends via social media about the importance of Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month and that colonoscopies save lives.

March 22 is Lynch Syndrome Hereditary Cancer Awareness Day.

“This syndrome is often forgotten and way under-detected,” said Dr. Zakalik. “It’s estimated 25,000 Michigan residents have Lynch syndrome, but less than 2 percent know they have it. Colorectal cancer, one of the deadlier cancers, can be prevented.”

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