First colonoscopy saves the life of one of Intermountain Health’s own

SALT LAKE CITY – Three days before last Christmas, Dan Liljenquist received a call from his doctor telling him he had stage 2 colon cancer.

As Chief Strategy Officer for Intermountain Health, Liljenquist is responsible for guiding the process of setting and achieving the organization’s strategic priorities. In recent years, he has come to realize that he needs to be as strategic with his own health as he is with his professional responsibilities.

So in early December, at age 48, Liljenquist underwent his first-ever colonoscopy.

When he got the call from his doctor, it really caught the attention of the former Utah state senator.

“When you get a diagnosis,” he said, “there’s that fear. I had one night and one morning with my wife. We didn’t tell our kids because we wanted to know what the story would be before we told them. “

A week after that call, Dan had a third of his colon removed by Intermountain LDS Hospital’s colon surgeon, Dr. Tae Kim.

“If he had waited until he was 50,” said Dr. Kim, “that cancer could have spread elsewhere where it would have been incurable.”

Until recently, the American Cancer Society recommended that people be screened for colon cancer at age 50. But there is an increase in the number of colon cancers being diagnosed in much younger people.

Chadwick Boseman, the actor who played Black Panther in the Marvel movies, died of colon cancer in 2020. He was 43.

The American Cancer Society says colon cancer is the second most common cause of cancer death in the United States for men and women combined. The organization estimates that 153,000 new cases of colon cancer will be diagnosed and 52,550 people will die from it in 2023 alone.

Dr. Kim said, “A colonoscopy is infinitely easier than getting your colon out, which is infinitely easier than getting chemotherapy, which is infinitely easier than having late stage cancer where I have to give you a (colostomy) bag. “

With this experience of colon cancer, Liljenquist said, “If you want to live a long, healthy life, health care … can really help you do that. But you have to participate in the process. You have to lean in.”

Liljenquist survived a horrific plane crash in Guatemala in 2008 that killed 11 of the 14 people aboard a single-engine Cessna over the jungle. At that moment he felt that he had been given a new life.

Now, after this close call with colon cancer, he enjoys every moment even more.

“If you really sum up life,” he said, “it’s about being there for the special moments with the people you love. And I want to be there for those moments as much as I can.”

Colorectal cancer screenings in Utah have increased over the past decade, with 62% of adults ages 50 to 74 undergoing a colonoscopy in 2010. By 2018, that rate had risen to 70%. And while the COVID-19 pandemic decreased the number of colonoscopies in Utah, that number has risen again, leaving gastroenterologists quite busy right now.

So when it comes time to schedule a colonoscopy, March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month, a great time to do it.

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