man playing guitar with granddaughter

A marathon runner’s race to beat colon cancer

November 14, 2017 | UCI Health
steve mcintyre and dr. jason zell
Steve McIntyre was treated for colon cancer by a coordinated team that included Dr. Jason Zell. Today, he's training for his second Boston Marathon.

Five years ago at Thanksgiving, Steve McIntyre suspected something was wrong — he felt so bloated and uncomfortable that he wasn’t able to finish his holiday dinner.

He was 44 and fit enough to run an occasional marathon. He lived comfortably with his wife and three preteen daughters in their Irvine home. And he traveled the world marketing for Broadcom Ltd., a company that makes semiconductors in its facility at the edge of the UC Irvine campus.

Part of a troubling trend

He was in the prime of his life. Then he learned he had colon cancer. While the risk for colon cancer is highest among older persons, there recently has been a marked increase in people under the age of 50 being diagnosed with the disease. McIntyre unfortunately was part of the troubling trend.

After preliminary tests suggested a problem, McIntyre’s primary doctor referred him to UCI Health, where he would receive seamless leading-edge care at the H.H. Chao Comprehensive Digestive Disease Center that would put him on a path to recovery that his doctors describe as “remarkable.”

Coordinated care in full effect

Just four days after Thanksgiving, Dr. William Karnes, a UCI Health gastroenterologist and director of the high-risk colon cancer program, performed a colonoscopy that identified a cancerous tumor.

The next day, Dr. Jason Samarasena, a gastroenterologist who specializes in interventional endoscopy, placed a stent in preparation for surgery.

Then, just a week later, Dr. Joseph Carmichael, a specialist in colon and rectal surgery, performed a laparoscopic sigmoid resection to cut out the tumor and repair the colon.

“That kind of coordinated care comes from people who work together, know each other, and really care about the patients,” Carmichael says. “It’s important to get chemo started quickly after surgery.”

McIntyre was in oncologist Dr. Jason Zell’s office for chemotherapy within two weeks.

“Our group has one of the highest rates of minimally invasive colorectal surgery in the country,” Carmichael says. “One of the great advances of laparoscopic surgery is that people return to normal life very quickly. Steve is an example of this.”

Marathon training as part of recovery plan

Discharged on a Saturday, McIntyre was answering emails by Sunday evening. He continued working from home until after the New Year.

He was walking before he left the hospital, and later walking the neighborhood every day. Then he started running, completing a marathon in Orange County before setting his sights on Boston — the world’s oldest and most prestigious road race.

“Anyone who’s done a marathon always dreams of running it, but I’d never been willing to commit to the time to do it,” McIntyre says. “I spent the whole year training. I used it as part of my recovery plan. It made sense since research shows that exercise is beneficial for recovery.”

He qualified for the 2016 event with a time of 3 hours, 22 minutes, sliding in by 11 seconds, and ran it in 3 hours, 32 minutes.

Clinical trial participation

McIntyre’s cancer hasn’t returned.

He was able to participate in a clinical trial to test the effectiveness of two drugs for prevention of recurrence of cancers and the development of new potentially precancerous growths. Led by Zell, a world-renowned leader in prevention of colorectal cancers, the national study enrolls patients who have battled colon cancer in a three-year course of either the two drugs or a placebo.

It’s a 10-year study, so the results aren’t known yet. McIntyre doesn’t even know whether he received the active drugs or a placebo during his three years in the study.

But he feels better today, nearly five years after his cancer diagnosis, than before and he knows he’s in better shape.

“Five years is a milestone,” says McIntyre. “I’m looking forward to December so I can say I’m cured. I have felt cured for a while now.”

In April 2018, he ran the Boston Marathon for a second time. 

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