Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month: How a radiation oncologist’s ‘just to be safe’ colonoscopy led to the discovery and removal of a pre-cancerous polyp

March 20, 2024
Jeffrey Albert, MD, MPH, and family

It was only occasional bleeding -- not even bleeding, just some minor blood streaking in my stool. Once every few weeks or so, often following a long run, so it’s probably just hemorrhoids, right?

Despite being a radiation oncologist and oncology program leader, I’m not immune to denial, rationalizing, and shame when it comes to the signs and symptoms of cancer. And despite being younger than all colonoscopy screening guidelines (39), eating a carefully planned healthy diet, and exercising daily as an ultrarunner and endurance athlete, I was still having bleeding. Every time I saw it, it was like a small black cloud of anxiety in my mind.

I had recently moved to the Denver area for my new job with CommonSpirit Health and I didn’t have a primary care physician, so when I established care with Dr. Jeff Turk I casually mentioned it. He acknowledged that it could just be hemorrhoids, but he was concerned enough to recommend a colonoscopy “just to be safe.” I was amenable to this plan because I had not only seen patients my age with colorectal cancer, I had been contacted twice recently by friends who have family members around our age diagnosed with metastatic colorectal cancer.

As an athlete who eats approximately 3,500 calories and more than 150 grams of protein a day, the colonoscopy prep was a nightmare! Following my morning run, I tried to research loopholes in the “clear liquid diet” guidelines. My wife had the great idea to add extra gelatin to the Jell-o for protein, but that wasn’t cutting it (of note, I haven’t had Jell-o once since that day and probably won’t until my follow-up colonoscopy at three years). I’ll spare the details, but the prep didn’t get any better after that.

I had a lot of anxiety about what I might hear when I woke up following my colonoscopy, and sure enough they found a large lesion that appeared to be a polyp. I always encourage my patients to be patient when waiting for test results, but those few days were more agonizing than I could have imagined. When the pathology came back, the report read “tubulovillous adenoma,” a precancerous lesion that given its size would have likely turned into cancer if it hadn’t been removed. I felt simultaneously relieved and terrified.

What if I hadn’t gone in when I did? How on Earth did I let this go on for so long without getting it checked out? Either way, I vowed that moving forward I would always pay closer attention to my body and get symptoms checked out, even if I’m too busy or tired or scared or otherwise healthy or … (insert other excuses here).

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month and an ideal time to review your risk factors with a health care provider and, if appropriate, schedule your colonoscopy. Learn more about colorectal cancer, including the ins and outs of colonoscopies, at

Dr. Jeffrey Albert, MD, MPH, is a Radiation Oncologist and the Executive Medical Director of Oncology for CommonSpirit Health’s Mountain region, which encompasses 20 hospitals and hundreds of care clinics across Colorado, Utah and Kansas. He studied at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and completed his residency in radiation oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.