The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that colorectal cancer screening is increasing, but according to its 2018 report, about one-quarter of adults still have never received a screening as recommended. More specifically, nearly 22 million adults aged 50 to 75 — those who are the most susceptible to the disease — have never been screened.
The condition, more commonly known as colon cancer, is the third most prevalent cancer diagnosed in men and women and is the third-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States.
Unlike pancreatic cancer — a disease that rarely presents symptoms until it’s too late and for which there is no diagnostic screening — colon cancer offers a handful of signs (a change in bowel habits, rectal bleeding, dark stools, and abdominal pain, among others) and preventive measures that make beating it possible.
A colonoscopy, a procedure used to detect abnormalities in the colon and rectum, is known as the gold standard in colon cancer screening. It involves sedating the patient and the insertion of a long, thin, flexible tube with a camera into the rectum.
It’s hard to say whether it’s panic over what the procedure might uncover, the procedure itself, the prep — which involves a liquid diet and the use of prescription-strength laxatives — or a combination of all three, but few elective screening exams cause patients such heightened anxiety.
It was that stigma around the procedure — the fear of the unknown and the physical toll of the process — that almost kept Ryan Cioffi from having a colonoscopy. But an instinct that something might be off with his body gave Ryan the courage to go through with the test that would end up helping to save his life.
Some Things You Just Can’t Plan For
The 36-year-old has a firm belief that everyone needs a little luck. But he also believes people make their own luck and write their own stories.
Ryan’s story begins in Williamsport, where he was born to Ronald and Patricia Cioffi. He recalls being a curious kid, one who liked to ask questions and poke holes in arguments. He grew up taking family vacations with his parents, brother, Chris, and sister, Morgan. A self-proclaimed sports nut, he played basketball and baseball throughout his childhood, and the Cioffi boys and Ron would drive to New Jersey on Sundays in the fall to watch the New York Jets play football. To this day, Ryan is also a diehard fan of the New York Mets and Notre Dame Fighting Irish football.
A graduate of Williamsport’s Loyalsock Township Senior High School, Ryan remained in-state for college to attend and graduate from West Chester University in suburban Philadelphia. He later became a financial advisor with Ameriprise Financial, finding success in helping clients achieve their financial goals through detailed life planning.
Along the way, he met the love of his life, Tiffany. A decade of wedded bliss has brought the Cioffis two sons, Braydon and Brycen, along with the type of love and laughs usually reserved for the silver screen.
But the guy who spends his professional life helping clients plan for their futures had no idea what was in store for his.
A Hospital Visit and a Phone Call
In what some might consider to be a bit of foreshadowing, the weather in Williamsport on September 17, 2018, was cloudy for most of the day. Pockets of light rain cooled temperatures that sat slightly higher than the historical average. “Gloomy” would have been an appropriate way to describe the Susquehanna Valley sky.
On that day, the colonoscopy that Ryan had undergone days prior was the furthest thing from his mind. After all, his symptoms were minor — the occasional bloody bowel movement, but certainly nothing to be concerned about for a healthy and physically fit man in the prime of his life.
Enter more foreshadowing.
Ryan happened to find himself in a hospital that day, but he was there only to visit his grandfather, Nick Cioffi, who days earlier had been admitted to UPMC Williamsport with pneumonia.
With his grandfather resting comfortably nearby, Ryan received a call on his cell phone. It was UPMC gastroenterologist Puneet Basi, MD, who had performed his colonoscopy, calling to deliver the results. Suddenly, Ryan — husband, father, middle school basketball coach, Little League baseball coach, and financial advisor — learned that he had colon cancer.
14 Inches and 29 Pounds
After speaking with Ryan by phone, Dr. Basi dropped everything to meet with Ryan and his family. He quickly connected Ryan with UPMC colorectal surgeon Jasneet Bhullar, MD, for treatment.
On December 3, 2018, Dr. Bhullar performed a nine-hour colon resection surgery at UPMC Williamsport to remove 14 inches of Ryan’s sigmoid colon.
For Ryan, recovery was mentally and emotionally grueling.
“The days following the surgery were the most painful and anxious days I have had in my life,” he says. “It was difficult to walk up and down the hall of the hospital because of the pain.”
During the procedure, the surgical team had also removed 13 lymph nodes for testing to learn whether Ryan’s cancer had spread. His body weakened and racked with pain, Ryan endured four more days of mental anguish as he awaited the results.
Ryan was ecstatic to learn that each of the extracted lymph nodes tested negative for cancer, but his recovery was still an uphill battle. He lost 29 pounds in December alone, his once-robust frame turning frail and gangly.
Life After Cancer
The first few months after surgery weren’t easy, but they seldom are for someone who goes through what Ryan did. But receiving good news during his routine follow-ups and having a strong support system surrounding him helped Ryan to feel like himself again — or at least a new version of himself.
Part of his new normal included gaining the confidence that the cancer was actually gone, something that Ryan struggled to grasp in the months immediately following his surgery. He also had to learn to adjust his diet to accommodate the changes to his colon.
“If I said I was strong every day, I would be lying,” Ryan says. “Leading up the surgery, I had many bad days. I let negative thoughts creep into my mind and take over my mood. It was difficult at times for me to stay positive.”
Fortunately, Ryan didn’t have to walk through these difficult experiences on his own.
Tiffany was with him at every appointment, accompanied him on visits to UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in Pittsburgh, where he also received care, and slept each night by his side while he was in the hospital. She also gave him a journal, which provided a cathartic outlet and a place for Ryan to write his thoughts about his cancer journey.
There were nights that he called one of his parents at 2 a.m., he says, just because he was scared. Ryan also drew strength and inspiration from his mother-in-law, Kelly Crowe, who has fearlessly battled cancer for a decade. UPMC physicians and close personal friends — family medicine specialist Krista Lazar, MD, and her husband, cardiothoracic surgeon Michael Lazar, MD — made frequent visits to Ryan and Tiffany’s home, where Ryan says he and his wife peppered the couple with questions for hours.
Then there are the UPMC medical staff members who treated his cancer, including Dr. Basi and Dr. Bhullar.
“I had no worries that Dr. Bhullar was going to be able to perform the surgery,” Ryan says. “But more important than being a good surgeon, Dr. Bhullar is one of the most kind, caring people I have come across in my lifetime. He became a support system for me. He never left a room until my anxiety was lowered. I would talk to him about my fears and worries at length, and he always knew the right thing to say.”
Working to Help Others
It’s because of a colonoscopy and early detection that Ryan is alive and cancer-free today. A Williamsport native who received outstanding care close to home, he wants to do whatever he can to make sure others have that same access.
As a member of the Keystone Society — Susquehanna Health Foundation’s annual gifts committee — Ryan is helping raise money in part for UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in Williamsport. His goal? To bring new doctors and new innovative technologies to the area to help save the lives of others fighting cancer in the Susquehanna region.
When asked what he treasures most in life, Ryan says that he loves interacting with all different types of people and hearing their stories. Somehow, the guy who overcame a bout with cancer, who now promotes health screenings for early detection, and who raises money to help cancer patients still says it is other people who amaze him.
“This is a community that cares for its people,” Ryan says. “It rallies behind people when they are most in need. It’s genuine and sincere.”