Take Charge

Clinic Turns High Risk into High Chance of Survival  

March 12, 2019

Heather Moore Hleemoffitt

By Sara Bondell

Heather Moore grew up in a cancer family. Almost every relative had battled the disease, and it claimed her father’s life when he was just 40 years old.

“We all grew up knowing we were going to have cancer eventually,” said Moore.

As a young adult, Moore had multiple precancers and early-stage cancers that were easily removed, but in 2013 doctors found a grapefruit-sized tumor in her colon and said she had less than a year to live. Moore walked into the Gastrointestinal (GI) Clinic at Moffitt and begged for help. “I got down on my knees and showed a nurse a picture of my kids on my phone and I said I don’t want to die, I want to fight,” said Moore.

Moffitt agreed to take Moore on as a patient, and she was immediately referred to a genetic counselor. Testing confirmed Moore had Lynch syndrome, a type of inherited cancer syndrome associated with a genetic predisposition to multiple types of cancer.

“I had already researched Lynch syndrome, and I knew I had it before the genetic test,” said Moore. “My family was a classic case, but before I came to Moffitt no one knew what to do with it. At Moffitt, they weren’t scared and had all these ideas on how to treat it.”

Moore had surgery to remove the tumor in her colon, as well as a risk reduction surgery that removed her reproductive organs. She enrolled in Moffitt’s High-Risk GI Clinic, a specialty clinic that is geared towards patients with a known family history or genetic predisposition to cancer.

Dr. Julian Sanchez

Dr. Julian Sanchez, who leads the clinic, says he is the quarterback for patients when it comes to getting the appropriate health screenings. “We walk the patient through the cancer prevention process,” he said. “After they have had their risk reduction surgery or oncologic operation, we follow them for life.”

Around 10 percent of GI cancers are hereditary, and the high-risk clinic sees hundreds of patients. Moffitt physicians are up to date with the latest technology, advancements and screening guidelines and can offer everything the patient needs in one place.

“Patients sometimes describe a concern that they are sitting on a ticking time bomb,” said Sanchez. “They know they’re going to get cancer, but that’s where we step in. Our job is to prevent that from happening.”

Moore, who has to be screened for multiple types of cancers as frequently as twice a year, says being involved in the high-risk clinic has provided an increased confidence in her care. “The Moffitt doctors aren’t only a one-stop shop for me, they communicate with each other,” she said. “I feel like I am informed and am checked so often that even if they did find something it would be so early stage that it would be a much smaller issue.”

Moore says when her daughters are old enough, she plans to have them genetically tested.

Current guidelines call for average-risk individuals to start getting annual colonoscopies at age 50. However, if you have a first-degree relative with colorectal cancer, you should be screened 10 years prior to the age of the family member’s diagnosis. If the family member was diagnosed at an age over 50, you should start being screened at 40.