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April 4, 2020
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A gastroenterologist at Connecticut Gastroenterology Consultants, Dr. Wayne Panullo campaigns against colorectal cancer and encourages the public to get screened for the disease. Photo by Maria Caulfield/The Courier

A gastroenterologist at Connecticut Gastroenterology Consultants, Dr. Wayne Panullo campaigns against colorectal cancer and encourages the public to get screened for the disease. (Photo by Maria Caulfield/The Courier | Buy This Photo)

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Dr. Wayne Panullo: A Fight Against Cancer

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Dr. Wayne Thomas Panullo has a challenge on his hands.

A gastroenterologist at Connecticut Gastroenterology Consultants in Guilford, he wants the public to know that colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in men and women in the United States. Although there is a 90 percent survival rate when cancer is found and treated early, one in three Americans are not screened as recommended.

Wayne wants to change that last statistic.

“Our goal is to increase this to 80 percent in the next few years,” he says.

He adds that although there are multiple ways to screen patients, a “colonoscopy is the best method. It allows us to remove growths called polyps before they [become] cancerous, and we can diagnose cancer at an earlier curable stage.”

But the very nature of colonoscopies makes the procedure unpalatable to patients even when they know it is beneficial.

“The public is often apprehensive about a colonoscopy,” he says. “That’s why they don’t get screened. But the process has dramatically improved on several areas. People are most concerned about the preps that you have to drink to clean yourself out. They’re better-tasting preps and they’re smaller-volume preps now. The technical improvements have resulted in better quality and more comfortable exams. The anesthesia that we give is given intravenously and most patients feel like they got the best sleep they ever had.”

He talks with a knowledge and persuasion borne from years of experience in the medical field and a passion to avoid unnecessary deaths from a disease that medical advancement has made possible to prevent. He also speaks with an urgency to get his message out.

And yet he has an affable demeanor, what some might term a pleasing bedside manner, that makes him easy to trust. In fact, as longtime residents of Madison, Wayne and his wife, Andrea, have earned the community’s trust in more than a few ways.

A nurse by trade, Andrea was involved in various volunteer works including Light the Night Pink, a benefit for the Terri Brodeur Breast Cancer Foundation, and Nite in Hand for the Daniel Hand High School seniors. She also opened her own shop, bellaPerlina.

Her father, Joseph Barbato, best known as Papa Joe, Madison’s Good Humor Man, endeared his way into the hearts of residents. He passed away on Feb. 25.

Wayne and Andrea have three daughters, Daniella, Christina, and Francesca.

Advancements in Medicine

For Wayne, finding his passion was not hard. At an early age, he read the biography of Louis Pasteur, which he says “kindled my interest in medicine and it just kept going.”

After completing his pre-medical degree from Johns Hopkins University, Wayne went on to earn his M.D. from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. He completed his residency at Georgetown University Hospital, obtained his gastroenterology fellowship from the Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, and later became the director of gastrointestinal (GI) endoscopy at the Miami V.A. Hospital. He has been in private practice on staff at Yale New Haven Hospital for 34 years and teaches in the GI Fellowship program at the Hospital of St. Raphael and Yale Hospital.

While his impressive background is an asset in his profession, his unassuming manner allows him to make light of his years of experience. But he does marvel at the new treatments that continue to emerge in the medical field.

“I’m a dinosaur,” he says with humor. “When I started, they didn’t even have names for things that they have names [now]. For instance, there’s a virus of the liver called hepatitis C. When I started, we didn’t know what that was. So we called it non-A, non-B. We didn’t have CAT scans when I started; we just had ultrasounds. We didn’t have liver transplantation.”

Today, a minimally invasive procedure can be performed by swallowing a capsule the size of a multivitamin pill.

“The technology just keeps improving,” Wayne says. “We have a capsule, for instance, that you swallow that takes pictures.”

The capsule endoscopy called PillCam allows GI doctors to better diagnose intestinal bleeding, Crohn’s disease, and tumors. It has the capability to transmit more than 50,000 images in eight hours. As the capsule passes through the GI tract, it communicates with the PillCam recorder, a small portable recording device placed in a pouch attached to a sensor belt worn around the patient’s waist. After the procedure, the data is downloaded from the PillCam recorder for physician review.

Although scientists still need to find a way to steer the pill inside the GI tract, “I expect this technology will continue to evolve and have a larger scope in GI practices in the future,” Wayne says.

While the PillCam may be a tool for finding lesions in the small bowel and diagnosing Crohn’s disease, colonoscopies are still the gold standard to detect colorectal cancer.

Wayne hopes that the stigma associated with colonoscopies can be totally eradicated, especially when celebrities like Katie Couric publicly advocate for the procedure.

Locally, Connecticut Gastroenterology Consultants is also putting colonoscopies in the forefront with its second annual Spin 4 Colon Cancer event on Sunday, March 15, at 11 a.m. at Shift Cycling + Strength, 965 Boston Post Road in Guilford.

“I just wanted to shout out some thanks to Guilford Shift Cycling for donating [the service of] studios and instructors, the local merchants who donated items for the teacup auction, and the Madison Coffee Shop that donated refreshments,” Wayne says.

“Many of our cancer survivors and those still battling cancer and their loved ones will attend,” he adds.

Screening is now recommended for adults 50 and older, but Wayne agrees with the American Cancer Society that screening should start earlier especially for those with higher risk factors. These include a first-degree family member with colon cancer and African-Americans, because they tend to get the cancer earlier.

He also notes that “the incidence between 45 and 50 now equals the rate of 50 to 55 before we started the screening. Before we started doing colonoscopy in the ‘90s, if you took the incidence of 50 [to] 55, it’s the same as a 45 to 50.”

One symptom younger people tend to ignore is rectal bleeding. He says most think it is caused by something much less serious such as hemorrhoids.

He says that “86 percent of younger patients who present with cancer have symptoms. So people who are young have symptoms and by the time you have symptoms, it’s more advanced. So this has gotten so bad that the American Cancer Society is now recommending that screening begin at age 45. But the insurance companies aren’t covering all that. They are covering 50 but not 45.”

Thus, he has a three-pronged advice for the public: Get screened, discuss family implications with your physician, and don’t ignore rectal bleeding.

Wayne’s dedication inevitably prompts the question: Why does he have such passion to fight this battle against colorectal cancer?

“Because it’s sad,” he answers. “Because it can be prevented. And if we can prevent it, why don’t we do that? Why don’t we get people to understand that it’s important to get done, that we can get patients through with minimal discomfort or risk, and that if they don’t do it, they’re putting their lives at risk unnecessarily?”

For more information about the second annual Spin 4 Colon Cancer event, visit www.ctgastro.com/spin4cancer.

To nominate a Person of the Week, send an email to m.caulfield@shorepublishing.com.


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