The Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney's Office participated in #DressInBlueDay on Friday, March 1 to raise awareness of colorectal cancer.
DPA Maureen Goodman’s son Mitch Johnson was strong and healthy, a man with a fun spirit and many friends. Before colorectal cancer upended everything, the Stadium grad and longtime restaurant industry veteran was, Maureen said, “a really protective big brother” who loved the Seahawks, concerts at the Gorge, and outdoor adventures.
But like a lot of us, Mitch was the type to “tough it out” before seeing a doctor. “I didn’t know there was anything wrong until maybe a few months before his diagnosis,” Maureen said, “and he really didn’t have a lot of overt symptoms. What he kept saying was that he felt like his digestive system was ‘off.’” He was making more frequent bathroom visits and had pain in his back.
Mitch was 38, and for Young Onset colorectal cancer patients, the symptoms are frequently ignored or misdiagnosed. An x-ray at urgent care showed nothing concerning, so he was referred to a G.I. specialist.
Mitch told Maureen everything was fine – because that’s what you tell mom. But a CT scan at Good Samaritan in June 2018 showed an abdomen full of fluid and spots on his liver. They knew it was likely cancer.
A familiar foe
This was not Maureen’s first go-round with cancer. When she was diagnosed with a fast-growing breast cancer in 2008, the PCPAO rallied around her. Co-workers took on some of her cases and a “Denim Day” fundraiser was organized.
When Maureen’s chemo treatments led to hair loss, DPA Bertha Fitzer offered a $500 donation to the Susan G. Komen Foundation for every team member willing to shave their head in solidarity. About a dozen men stepped up – including Prosecuting Attorney Gerry Horne. The News Tribune was there to capture it all.
Mitch’s diagnosis brought those memories back to Maureen, but this battle was different. This was her child.
A frustrating journey
Mitch’s days were soon filled with doctor’s visits, hospital stays, tests and complications. A colonoscopy showed the cause of his fluid backups: a tumor almost entirely blocking his colon. Weekly drainings were needed until chemo treatments could start.
The following months had their ups and downs, but more downs. Mitch’s body didn’t react well to chemo. Cancer spread to his peritoneum, the thin membrane that covers abdominal organs. The hopes for a 1-2 year prognosis faded.
“It was like every worst-case scenario was his,” Maureen said. Certain treatments such as immunotherapies weren’t options for Mitch because of his condition. “So many doors had closed for him, and that was really frustrating.”
In September 2018 Mitch made the decision to end treatment after the discovery of additional complications. For his mother it was agonizing, but Mitch was “really sure.” He returned home on a Saturday and, surrounded by family and friends, died the following Wednesday.
Awareness is about prevention
Now Maureen and her family are serious about raising awareness of colorectal cancers, especially among young people. She supports the Colorectal Cancer Alliance and its Young Onset program, but says she’s for “any organization that brings new awareness to this disease.”
- Get regular check-ups and have a doctor who knows you and your body.
- Don’t explain away symptoms. “It’s so easy to do that – ‘Oh, I must’ve eaten something bad,’ or ‘I just haven’t been sleeping right’ – but if something is off, look into it.”
- If your bathroom habits have changed or if “there’s anything wrong with your digestive system – if anything is out of whack – get it checked out, and keep going back until they know what it is.”
- Blood in the stool is the most well-known sign of colorectal issues, but not every patient shows that symptom – Mitch didn’t. Don’t ignore other signs and symptoms.
- Get screened! The American Cancer Society now recommends a colonoscopy at age 45 for those of average risk. Younger for those with symptoms or at higher risk, like individuals with Crohn’s, IBS or Colitis. Certain ethnic groups including African Americans, Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Latinos are also at higher risk.
- Learn about newer screening options such as Colorguard, which can detect cancer cells and microscopic blood in stool samples.
For Maureen and her family, preventing other families from going through the same heartache would offer some solace. “We’re talking about a disease where the symptoms can be tough to notice, but once it spreads it is just so deadly. It just really would be comforting to our family to know that somebody else was saved from having to go through all of this.”
To learn more about colorectal cancers and their signs, visit the Colorectal Cancer Alliance. To support the CCA, visit Mitch Johnson’s Blue Star Tribute page.