March 04, 2013

Carrie Bebermeyer

With Diligence and Her Doctors’ Help, SLU’s Michele Oesch Re-Writes Her Destiny

Grateful for Her Good Health, She Intends to Pay It Forward

As it turned out, Michele Oesch did not develop cancer last year.

Michele, who works in corporate relations at Saint Louis University, brims with good health. Her colleagues in DuBourg Hall would attest to this. They greet her in the morning after her bike ride to work and on her way to Simon Rec Center for her lunchtime workout. Last fall, she added a swimming class, just for good measure.

Michele Oesch has set a personal goal to hike in every national park.

Not quite a vegetarian, Michele eats produce and whole grains along with some fish and chicken a few times a week.

And when you meet her, not only is Michele fit and energetic, but you also get the sense that she seems happy, perhaps thanks to her life philosophy.

“Health is important to me,” she says. “It’s one of the things we have some control over.

“You’ve been given this vessel, your body, to take you through life. I think you have a responsibility to take care of it. I feel like the best way to live life to the fullest is to do everything you can to take care of that vessel along the way.”

One of Michele’s hobbies, which lights up her eyes as she talks about it, is hiking with her family. She and her husband have set a goal to explore every national park in the country. They’ve made a good start, visiting 10 so far, and she has breathtaking photos to show for it.

She’s also the kind of person who takes care of her health in all of the ways you’re supposed to, but which the less diligent often forget, procrastinate or protest. She makes regular dentist appointments, two times a year. She goes to all of her well woman appointments. When she turned 40, she added regular mammograms. And, this year, when Michele turned 50, she scheduled a colonoscopy.

Colonoscopies are performed to screen for colon and rectal cancer. After a day spent cleaning out the colon with a “prep” drink, a gastroenterologist uses a scope with a tiny camera to check the health of the colon.

With no risk factors – other than her age – Michele imagined her doctor might pronounce “You have one of the best colons I’ve ever seen. Keep up the good work,” giving her the odd sort of compliment doctors give their healthy patients. At worst, she thought, he might find a polyp, a small, early growth that can be removed during the procedure.

When she woke up after the procedure, however, Dr. Jason Taylor, a gastroenterologist in the SLUCare practice, had something unexpected to tell her.

“Dr. Taylor was extremely kind and gentle and respectful. And very sorry to tell me the news. He said, ‘We found a mass. It looks like cancer.’

“I was stunned.”

“If I can explain what happened to me -- when I have no risk factors -- that I was a step away from getting cancer, and that a colonoscopy caught it, if I can get one person to go schedule a colonoscopy, I'll be happy. Ten people, great. A hundred people - the best.”

Michele realized she had never seriously entertained the possibility of cancer, not when she felt so healthy. She says her head spun as she tried to process the news, but that she remembers one thing from the conversation quite clearly: The mass Dr. Taylor discovered demanded immediate action. Michele would need to schedule surgery right away.

Feeling shaken, Michele read up on the condition and began to consider what a cancer diagnosis would mean. The uncertainty, she’ll tell you, was one of the hardest things to manage.

Thanks to a cancelation, a spot opened up and Michele was able to schedule surgery the following week. Meanwhile, the biopsy from the colonoscopy came back: though the size and texture of the mass had been consistent with cancer, under the microscope the mass appeared to be benign. Doctors couldn’t be certain that cancer cells weren’t still lurking, and surgery was still needed to remove the mass immediately, but this was undeniably good news. Michele began to feel more hopeful.

The next week, Michele had surgery and the mass was removed. The surgeon reported that all had gone as it should. Now, she had to sit tight and wait for the verdict.

“After surgery, we thought the biopsy results would take a week. But somehow, within two hours, I got a call. The mass was completely benign, no cancer at all. It was such wonderful news, such a relief.

“But – this was clear as day – the mass was one step away from cancer. If I’d waited, the outcome would have been different.”

Michele hopes to convince others to schedule the colon cancer screening procedure. 

Now, Michele feels grateful.

After the rollercoaster of emotions leveled out and she had time to reflect, Michele found that she felt a strong impulse to share her good fortune with others, to let them know what she discovered.

“I want people to know that the procedure was no big deal. It’s not something to agonize over. And, when doctors tell you to schedule the appointment at 50 – or earlier for some people – it’s for a good reason. Please have a colonoscopy when it’s recommended for you. Months can mean the difference.

“If I can explain what happened to me -- when I have no risk factors -- that I was a step away from getting cancer, and that a colonoscopy caught it. If I can get one person to go schedule a colonoscopy, I’ll be happy. Ten people, great. A hundred people – the best.”

Dr. Taylor feels the same way. Asked how it feels to have helped someone trade chemotherapy and radiation for hiking in a national park with her family, he smiled and said, without a beat, “Oh, I have the best job in the world.”

In a recent milestone, Michele received a clean bill of health at her three month checkup. Now, she’s turning her attention to her next national park visit. Top on her list are Death Valley National Park, King's Canyon National Park, Sequoia National Park, and Yosemite National Park -- all in California.

As she begins her quest to convince others to schedule the screening test, Michele has had her first success: Her husband scheduled his colonoscopy with Dr. Taylor this month.

“We can’t change everything,” Michele said. “There are things beyond our control, beyond our choices, beyond our doctor’s skill.

“But there are also things that are within our control, things that we can change. Sometimes, you have a chance to re-write your story. Please, please take advantage of those chances.

“My story had a good ending. I want everybody’s story to have a good ending.”



SCHEDULE a colonoscopy. To make an appointment with a SLUCare gastroenterologist, call 314-977-4440 or click here.
doctors’ recommendations for when to have a colonoscopy and ways to reduce your risk factors for colon and rectal cancer here.
about ways to eliminate anxiety about the procedure here.
SPREAD the message that colonoscopies save lives.

During March -- Colorectal Cancer Awareness month -- join us on Facebook and Twitter to help spread the message to your friends and family. Share Michele's message as we post stories and tips throughout the month. And, send us your stories: If you schedule your colonoscopy appointment, remind your mother or father to schedule their appointments, share a tip from one of our doctors on social media, or have another way you're helping to spread the message that colonoscopies save lives, let us know and we'll tell Michele how her story has impacted others.

Higher purpose. Greater good.
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