SALT LAKE CITY — Three days before last Christmas, Dan Liljenquist received a call from his doctor saying he had stage 2 colon cancer.
As Chief Strategy Officer of Intermountain Health, Liljenquist is responsible for guiding the process of setting and achieving the organization’s strategic priorities. Over the past few years, he’s come to realize that he should be as strategic with his own health as he is with his work responsibilities.
So in early December, at age 48, Liljenquist underwent her very first colonoscopy.
When he got the call from his doctor, he really caught the attention of the former Utah state senator.
“When you get a diagnosis,” he said, “there’s this fear. I spent a night and a morning with my wife. We didn’t tell our children because we wanted to know what would be the story before telling them.”
A week after that phone call, Dan had a third of his colon removed by Intermountain LDS Hospital colorectal surgeon Dr. Tae Kim.
“If he had waited until he was 50,” Dr. Kim said, “this cancer might have spread somewhere else where it would have been incurable.”
Until recent years, the American Cancer Society recommended that people start getting screened for colon cancer at age 50. But there has been an increase in the number of colon cancers being diagnosed in much younger people.
Chadwick Boseman, the actor who played Black Panther in Marvel movies, died of colon cancer in 2020. He was 43.
The American Cancer Society states that colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States for men and women combined. The organization estimates that in 2023 alone, 153,000 new cases of colorectal cancer will be diagnosed and 52,550 people will die from it.
Dr Kim said: “A colonoscopy is infinitely easier than having your colon removed, which is infinitely easier than having chemotherapy, which is infinitely easier than having late-stage cancer, where I gotta give you a (colostomy) bag.”
Having this experience with colon cancer, Liljenquist said, “If you want to live a long and healthy life, health care…can really help you do that. But you have to be part of the process. You have to lean In.”
Liljenquist survived a horrific plane crash in Guatemala in 2008 that killed 11 of 14 people aboard a single-engine Cessna flying over the jungle. At the time, he felt that he had been given a new lease of life.
Now, after that close call with colon cancer, he’s savoring every moment even more.
“When you really sum up life,” he said, “it’s about being there for the special times with the people you love. And I want to be there for those times, as much as possible.”
Screenings for colorectal cancer in Utah have increased over the past decade, with 62 percent of adults ages 50 to 74 having colonoscopies in 2010. By 2018, that rate had risen to 70 percent. And while the COVID-19 pandemic has seen a decrease in the number of colonoscopies in Utah, that number has rebounded, leaving gastroenterologists pretty busy now.
So if it’s time to schedule a colonoscopy, March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month, a great time to do it.