Grace Butler, Ph.D, had done everything right. She exercised regularly, ate healthy meals, and had an annual FOBT test, a sigmoidoscopy, and barium enema exams. But no one told her she needed a colonoscopy – and that oversight led to her diagnosis of stage III colon cancer in 1999.
Butler spoke to Fight Colorectal Cancer recently about the diagnosis that changed her life and how she’s extending hope in the fight against colorectal cancer to Texans without insurance.
Before your diagnosis, how would you describe your life?
I had a wonderfully blessed life before cancer. I am an educator, and I started my career as a band and orchestra teacher in New Orleans. I moved from teaching to administration in higher education. I completed a doctorate at New York University and I earned appointments at several universities.
Now I’m a professor emeritus at the University of Houston. After 41 years of working, I retired because cancer paid me a visit.
What made you get screened for colorectal cancer?
It was 1999 and I had been ailing for eight or nine months. When I complained to my doctor, he gave me medicine for depression and sleeping pills. The last time, he told me I was having panic attacks, prescribed anti-depressants and sent me home.
Two weeks later, I was running errands and felt pain in my lower abdomen. The pain didn’t go away. Over the next few days, I was admitted to the hospital, put on pain medication and given a number of tests. After several days, the GI doctor came to my bedside with a big smile from ear to ear. He said, “I have good news, we haven’t found anything. So when the business office opens tomorrow, we are going to let you go home.”
I believe my father, my God, decided to intervene. I replied to the doctor, “You haven’t looked at my colon. I think you need to look at my colon.” That could have only come from God because [the word] colon is not even in my working vocabulary.
They performed a colonoscopy the next day. That evening, the surgeon showed me horrific-looking pictures of the tumor. Two-thirds of my colon was removed and I was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer. The surgery was in April and I had chemotherapy from May through December.
The cancer had been slow growing, and it takes about 10 years to grow. I had been conscientious about my health and took the FOBT test every year and it had been negative every year. I had a barium enema and a sigmoidoscopy. I went to my annual well woman exams. All these tests were negative.
But I was never told to get a colonoscopy.
What was it about your medical journey that made you become an advocate for early screening?
A few years ago, I was invited to serve on a committee in charge of developing a strategic plan to address colorectal cancer throughout the state. At these meetings, I kept asking: If you don’t go into the underserved community, what’s going to happen to those people? Will they be left to die?
I remember the reply like it was yesterday. During one meeting, a gastroenterologist talked about the cost of malpractice insurance, the cost of healthcare and how he did pro bono service at one time, but because of changes in the economy, he could no longer do so.
He turned to me and said, “Now to answer your question, the answer is yes, they will be left to die.”
Every time I say it, I get a lump in my throat. I walked out of there in tears. In my head, I heard a voice–someone’s got to do something about this.
Eventually, the vision came to me that it had to be Grace Butler. I gathered a motley crew in my kitchen–my daughter, who practices medicine, her friend who went to medical school with her and a few other friends and they joined me in saying something needs to be done. We created Hope Through Grace.
What is the goal of Hope Through Grace?
Our mission is short and sweet: To eliminate colorectal cancer through prevention and early detection.
Hope Through Grace covers the cost of baseline colonoscopy screening for people who can’t afford health insurance. We’ve covered the cost of well over 100 people.
It’s a grain of sand on the beach, what we’re doing. But for the people who have been screened through us, and there was some type of disease or pathology found, they received the clinical care prescribed through the intervention of Hope Through Grace.