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By the time she was 34, Lynne Fisher had already experienced incredible tragedy.
Her uncle Charlie had died at the age of 33, followed by her father a year later at the age of 47. More significantly, both of their lives had been claimed by the same disease – colon cancer.
While the episode was very traumatic, a connection between their deaths was never made, until 10 years later when the unthinkable happened. Fisher’s brother was diagnosed with colon cancer, also called bowel cancer, at the young age of 28 – and passed away two years later.
“My brother Mickey died, which was really traumatic,” Fisher, 51, who lives in Nottingham, England, told FoxNews.com. “I’d seen my uncle, my dad, my brother all die. And I was really close to my brother; there was only a two-year age gap. Watching your younger brother die is just horrible.”
Realizing that the family had a connection of some kind, doctors warned Fisher she could possibly develop the disease and that the increased risk was most likely passed down from her father. However, genetic screening wasn’t available then, so Fisher, her two brothers and sister started having colonoscopies every three years in order to check for signs of the developing disease.
During this time, Fisher had a small nervous breakdown, feeling that everyone around her was dying of the same disease. She vowed that if she ever contracted colorectal cancer, she wouldn’t pursue treatment, believing nothing could be done to save her, and that she should try to enjoy the time she had left.
Then in 2006, 13 years after Mickey’s death, Fisher’s older brother Clive was diagnosed with colon cancer at the age of 38.
“While he was in the hospital, he had lots of tests, and they told him he had a mutated gene that runs in our family,” Fisher said. “They explained it to him, and then he rang me and said, ‘They can’t save my life, but Lynne, you should get yourself tested, and then at least you’ll know.’”
Doctors had identified in Clive a faulty gene that is linked to a condition called hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC) – also known as Lynch syndrome. First discovered by Henry T. Lynch in 1966, Lynch syndrome is one of the most common hereditary causes of colon cancer, causing 3 percent of all cases.
People with Lynch syndrome develop polyps – abnormal growths of tissue – in their colons. However, unlike in individuals without the faulty gene, the progression from a small polyp to full-blown cancer is a lot quicker for these kinds of patients.
“If (the polyps) are removed when they’re small, a lot of patients can keep their colons,” Dr. Anish Sheth, a gastroenterologist at the University Medical Center at Princeton in New Jersey, who did not treat Fisher, told FoxNews.com. “If you catch it later where the polyps are too big, you have to have surgery and some people will remove the majority of the colon.”
The lifetime risk of someone with Lynch syndrome developing bowel cancer is 70 to 80 percent.
At first, Fisher said she didn’t want to know if she had the gene.
“They gave me lots of options: Did I want to know? What would I do if I did have it?” Fisher said. “I nearly didn’t want to know, because I thought, ‘What difference would it make?’ But all my family urged me to have the test, and I got the results that I’ve got it.”
According to Sheth, a person with Lynch syndrome can have multiple mutated genes that contribute to the development of cancer.
“They all fit into this category of mismatched repair genes,” Sheth said. “As our cells are dividing and replicating as we grow, there are just inevitable errors along the way. There are genes we have that are designed to identify these mistakes and then correct them. However, these genes which are responsible to repair these mismatches are actually abnormal (in people with Lynch syndrome) , so you get these cells who incorporate all these errors” – ultimately leading to cancer.
Upon the discovery of her genetic mutation, Fisher was presented with a very complicated surgical option. Her doctor recommended she have a subtotal colectomy, in order to remove a large part of her colon. He told Fisher he was 100 percent sure she would get bowel cancer if she didn’t have the procedure done. But initially, Fisher didn’t want it.
“Because no one could save Clive’s life, and no one could save Mickey’s life, so I felt a bit guilty that they could save mine,” Fisher said.
But finally the urgings of her family convinced her to have the surgery – as well as inspiration from one of Fisher’s idols: Sharon Osbourne. Osbourne announced she had colon cancer in 2002 and had surgery to remove part of her colon.
“I read a story on Sharon Osbourne – she’s my idol; I have my hair like her,” Fisher said. “Sharon had some colon removed cause of some bowel cancer, and it made me realize that famous people are just normal people. Just because she’s very famous, she still has these things going on in her family that I’ve got going on in my family, we have similar paths we’re following… So I thought she did it, other people have it, I might as well do it too.”
Surgeons ended up removing a large portion of her colon and reconstructed her small intestine to essentially function as her large intestine.
“My small intestine is sewed onto my rectal stump,” Fisher said. “Normally you have the colon – well that’s gone. I haven’t got a bag, but it means when I eat, within half an hour I need to go to the toilet. And there are lots of things that go through; I don’t digest things as much.”
While she still experiences pain and frequent visits to the hospital, Fisher is thankful she had the surgery, as her risk of developing colon cancer has been decreased to 30 percent. Also, Fisher is a mother of three, so she also knows her children are at risk of having the mutated gene and they will need to get tested soon.
Overall, Fisher urges anyone to see a doctor as soon as possible if they have any change in bowel habits – albeit an uncomfortable subject to talk about.
“A doctor has seen lots of things,” Fisher said. “They’re there to save your life, and if you do not go to the hospital and get it checked out – you’re someone’s mom, dad, brother, sister, son, daughter, etc. There’s someone who doesn’t want to lose you. It’s important to get yourself checked.”
Fisher is involved with the charity Beating Bowel Cancer, located in England. To learn more about the charity and how to contribute, visit www.beatingbowelcancer.org.