Determined. Motivated. Resolved. When Harriman resident Rich Robertson was diagnosed with early-stage rectal cancer, he knew he would do whatever it took to tackle it.
Through two years of radiation, chemotherapy treatments and an intensive surgery that involved removing the cancerous tumor, he kept his sight on his goal: being cancer-free.
Robertson has always been a fighter. He is retired from his 22-year military career, during which he was wounded in active duty. During his tour in Iraq, he was injured during an IED explosion and, as a result of his injuries, is paralyzed from the waist down. Robertson now works as a program and project manager at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
His rectal cancer was detected early, in July 2021, when a take-home kit presented abnormal results. The veteran was prompted to get a colonoscopy, which revealed a cancerous mass. He was referred to Thompson Cancer Survival Center at Methodist Medical Center in Oak Ridge. He was prescribed chemotherapy and radiation in order to shrink the tumor.
A Winning Team
Robertson’s case was treated by a multidisciplinary tumor board. The tumor board includes specialists who are directly involved in a patient’s case, from radiology and pathology to oncology and surgery. Coming together, the specialists are able to gain every perspective on cancer cases in order to make a fully informed recommendation.
The tumor board for Robertson’s case included Elliot Navo, MD, radiation oncologist, and Michael Thompson, MD, medical oncologist, both at Thompson Cancer Survival Center at Methodist, and Sung Lee, MD, colon and rectal surgeon at Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center.
After several rounds of chemo and radiation, Robertson underwent surgery at Fort Sanders Regional to remove the mass. Dr. Lee performed a procedure called a robotic-assisted abdominoperineal resection. During the procedure he removed the distal colon, rectum and anal sphincter and created a colostomy. This minimally invasive approach gives patients a lower risk of complication, shorter recovery time and less pain than traditional surgery.
Robertson recovered in the hospital for a few days. “Dr. Navo, Dr. Thompson and Dr. Lee all made me feel like I was in as much control as I could be,” Robertson says. “By nature I’m aggressive, so I wanted to get it over and done with.
“They listened and asked how I was doing. They were upfront about the side effects and what I could do to mitigate them, so I wasn’t surprised by much. My employer was very accommodating and I didn’t miss much work. Plus, it was caught early so the cancer didn’t spread.”
Today, he is six months post-op and feeling great. But it’s been a journey.
After being injured in Iraq in 2005, Robertson is no stranger to medical care. He considers himself lucky and has learned to keep his circumstances in perspective. “I know I could have a worse prognosis. The treatment team caring for me have exceeded my expectations. I couldn’t be luckier.”
His wife Sarah has been through the thick of it alongside him, Robertson says. “We have been together 30 years. It’s thanks to her I get to my appointments and take all my medications on time. The team has also been great to communicate with her, to make sure she understands everything with my diagnosis and treatment, too.”
Because Robertson is a paraplegic, his rectal cancer symptoms were masked. It was only through the at-home screening kit followed by a colonoscopy that his cancer was detected.
“It comes back to me having a great wife,” Robertson says lightheartedly. “But seriously, I say screening and listening to your body is important. Even the subtle symptoms – it could be nothing or it could be something.”
The couple has enjoyed a winter cruise and has journeyed with their RV across the Midwest and south to Florida. Robertson is feeling “back to normal” and is thankful to his family and his healthcare team for supporting him through treatment and recovery.
Dr. Lee adds, “Mr. Robertson had no complications and did very well with surgery. He was an active guy and had a positive attitude, and he was motivated to get through his cancer treatment. He did very well and will undergo yearly CT scan for surveillance, but his treatment was curative.”
Dr. Lee emphasizes that colon and rectal cancer often don’t show any symptoms until advanced stages. He encourages people to follow the recommended screening guidelines and report any gastrointestinal symptoms to their primary care physician.