Stubbornness nearly killed Rick Hatton.
The 56-year-old Fresno mechanic said it took losing half his large intestine and more than two-thirds of his liver to show him the importance of medical checkups.
Refusing to get a routine colonoscopy when he turned 50 was his first misstep, he said. The test likely would have caught colon cancer that went undetected for too long to prevent it from spreading to his liver.
“I probably shouldn’t be here, the way I acted through being stubborn,” Hatton said Tuesday from a hospital bed at Community Regional Medical Center in downtown Fresno.
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He had Stage 4 colon cancer by the time doctors saw him at the emergency department six months ago. He had ignored stomach pains for so long that he was too weak and in too much pain to resist when friends called an ambulance.
Now I’ll pay attention.
He had had classic colon cancer symptoms: a change in bowel color, sudden weight loss, stomach pain that persisted. And he had a family history; his father died of colon cancer at age 29. But the cancer diagnosis caught Hatton off-guard. He thought the pain was a hernia from lifting too much weight.
He was taken into emergency surgery to clear a blockage. The right side of his large intestine had to be removed, and tests showed the colon cancer had spread to his liver. About 50 percent of colorectal cancer patients will have tumors in the liver. Colorectal cancers start in either the colon or rectum.
Dr. Haifaa Abdulhaq broke the news to Hatton. “Rick is a tough guy,” she said. “But I could see the look in his eyes.” She addressed his fears, reassuring him that he had options.
Abdulhaq called in colleagues. She is a member of the Hepato-Pancreato-Bilary & Stomach Cancer Program that was created in August by Dr. Amir H. Fathi, who specializes in liver and pancreatic surgery. The program is affiliated with the University of California at San Francisco-Fresno Medical Education Program and Community Regional Medical Center.
A 20-member cancer team developed a treatment plan for Hatton.
He was started on chemotherapy to help shrink the cancerous tumors in his liver. Fathi and Abdulhaq assessed Hatton and decided that enough of his liver could be saved in surgery to allow it to regenerate.
The surgery “was the only way we could have rendered him cancer-free,” Fathi said.
140,000Americans diagnosed every year with colorectal cancer
Hatton agreed to the surgery. “They know better than I do,” he said.
On Sept. 8, in a procedure lasting more than nine hours, Fathi and Dr. Babak Eghbalieh removed the right side of Hatton’s liver, which had five cancerous lesions (one the size of a golf ball). They also reattached his large intestine so he no longer has a colostomy, an opening in the abdominal wall for feces to pass through.
Fathi had to cut out 70 percent of Hatton’s liver. Within a couple more weeks the organ should be up to 90 percent of its original size, Fathi said.
A week after the surgery, Hatton showed the scar extending nearly from mid-chest to below his belly button.
He’s getting his strength back, though, and his appetite: He ate most of the French toast and potatoes on a plate at his bedside. When he goes home, he’ll be able to do almost everything he used to before surgery, except heavy lifting.
More than 90 percent of colorectal cancers occur in people age 50 and older.
Hatton won’t be smoking, however. He’s given up his 40-year habit. Smoking is a risk factor for cancer.
Doctors have declared him cancer-free, but he will receive chemotherapy in a couple of months when he’s strong enough for a four-month regimen. The treatment is only a precaution to make sure no cancer cells are in his bloodstream, Abdulhaq said.
Hatton said the doctors gave him a second chance at life, and he wants to encourage people like himself to have colonoscopies. “The stubborn people need to get in and get checked out.”
Barbara Anderson: 559-441-6310