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How one screening led to the discovery of late-stage colorectal cancer — and an inspiring survival story

Rick and Tami Stubblefield were already in their 50s when they got married in 2012, but it’s hard for them to remember a time when they were apart.

“We lived half a century without each other, but I don’t know how we ever did,” Tami says. “We’ve never argued, never had a fight. Even now we’re like teenagers. When Rick goes to the store, he’ll call me three times. He just wants to talk to me while he’s shopping.”

Adds Rick, “We’re truly of one mind. We always know what the other needs.”

In 2014, Tami recognized that Rick was due for a colorectal cancer screening.  The American Cancer Society recommends screenings start:

  • At age 50 (then every 10 years)for men and women at average risk (no family history of polyps or colorectal cancer)
  • At age 40 (then every 10 years) for people with family members who had colorectal cancer or polyps at age 60 or older
  • At age 40, or 10 years before the youngest case (then every five years)for people with family members who had colorectal cancer before age 60

“I said, ‘Rick, you’re over 50 years old. BlueCross pays for it. Go get it over with,’” Tami recalls. “‘You’ll find out you’re just fine, and you’ll come home. You’ll miss a half day.’”

An unexpected result

“I went in to have the colonoscopy feeling just as healthy as you are talking to me,” Rick says. “I had no symptoms, no family history. I was going in perfectly fine just to have a normal screening. In fact, when I asked my doctor to have the colonoscopy, she asked me, ‘Do you have symptoms? Is there a reason you need to go?’ I said, ‘No. My main reason is because my wife wants me to.’”

In August 2014, that screening showed Rick had stage 4 colorectal cancer. He was given six months to live. 

Rick’s treatment and recovery process involved eight months of chemotherapy and multiple surgeries (one to remove half his liver). He suffered several hernias and was forced to leave his job at Walmart.

But through it all, his faith and family support never wavered. Those helped him during the darkest times and turned a six-month prognosis into five years of fighting.

BlueCross Rick and Tami Stubblefield

“If you get this kind of news, it’s not the end of the line,” Rick says.  “There is the shock of it, and you’re first thinking, ‘Well, this doesn’t end well for most people.’ But don’t hang your head, and remember that attitude plays the biggest part. You have to go into it fighting and saying, ‘I’m going to make it through this,’ and be willing to wake up on the other side of those surgeries and bad days of chemo when you feel sick and don’t feel like doing it, and push on.”

Rick is now cancer-free. He remains a BlueCross member through our Medicare Advantage program.

Knowledge is power

BlueCross encourages its members to get these screenings because the earlier colorectal cancer is diagnosed, the more likely it is to be treatable. When caught early, colorectal cancer can be prevented or treated successfully 92% of the time. Only 67% of Tennesseans get their recommended screenings on schedule. 

“We try to find  convenient ways for members to get their screenings,” says Carmen LeVally, quality improvement consultant at BlueCross. “For example, with our colorectal cancer screening campaigns, oftentimes our outreach team is calling members and scheduling colonoscopies. If there is some pushback and the members aren’t comfortable getting one, they can call and order an in-home test kit to be delivered directly to their home.”

“We encourage our members to talk to their provider about their concerns and what other available options there are for them.”

Advocates for awareness

The Stubblefields have a simple message for those on the fence about a colorectal cancer screening: Schedule it.

“We’re sharing our story because we want people to have these screenings,” Tami says.  “BlueCross pays for it. One half a day of your life, four hours, can mean the difference between a clean bill of health and two to six months to live. In Rick’s case, he had stage 4 colorectal cancer, one of the most aggressive forms. They’ll tell you don’t get five years to live, but here we are.”

“It’s an entirely different perspective on life, when you realize how fragile it really is. We look at everything differently.”

Carmen wants members to remember that early detection saves lives.

“Hopefully, hearing the Stubblefields’ story will help alleviate any concerns members may have about getting these preventive screenings,” she says. “Rick and Tami don’t want others to have to go through what they’ve been through.”

BlueCross Stubblefields swing

Though he’s currently cancer-free, Rick sees his doctor regularly. His most recent carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) test was in August. A high amountof CEA in the body following cancer treatment or surgery can indicate the cancer is still present.

“This is our first six months between tests; we’ve always been every three,” Tami says. “But I can honestly say right now that I would start today and go back through every single thing we’ve been through to have him for five more years.”

With a smile, Rick adds, “Hopefully it will be longer than that.”

About Jesse Thompson, Principal Communications Specialist

A photo of the authorJesse joined the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee corporate communications team in 2017. A Chattanooga native, he has more than 15 years’ experience in content creation, management, and strategy for consumer audiences, including a six-year stint in health care marketing.

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