Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Thursday, July 19, 2018

My father has been dead for 30 years, and I miss him still. I wish he were here to tend his roses, to hug his grandchildren, to walk me down the aisle for my second marriage. I wish he and my mother had been able to enjoy a cozy retirement together.

He died when he was younger than I am today — a seemingly healthy and vigorous middle-aged man who did everything he knew to remain well. He quit smoking in his 30s; he exercised faithfully; he got his annual checkup. And the fact that his death was probably preventable makes it all the more tragic.

My dad died for want of a simple diagnostic test: a colonoscopy, the gold standard for detecting colon cancer. But back in the 1980s, medical science didn’t broadly disseminate news of its importance. Colon cancer, unlike most types, is largely curable when detected early, according to the American Cancer Association.

March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and every year I do what I can to make sure families don’t endure the awful grief that haunts my family still. So here’s what you need to know: If you are 50 or older and you’ve never had one, get a colonoscopy. (If you have a family history of the disease, you may need to start your screenings sooner.) Make sure your spouse gets one. Make sure your parents do.

Writing in Slate, physician Rebecca Moss recently lamented the fact that so few Americans get screened for colon cancer when it’s recommended. “Your first act in prevention should be to get a colonoscopy when your doctor tells you to; the procedure can find tumors and pre-cancerous polyps before they become deadly. The other best prevention for colorectal cancer is exercise.

“Unfortunately, most Americans don’t follow this advice,” wrote Moss, who specializes in gastrointestinal cancers, noting that only about a quarter of people get a colon cancer screening when it’s recommended. However, she said, more than half of Americans take nutritional supplements, which don’t do a thing to ward off cancer.

Why don’t more people follow the straightforward recommendation for a screening test? It’s easy to put off, heaven knows. The colonoscopy (it’s not the only screening method, but, again, it’s the gold standard) requires a bit of preparation that can easily take a day out of your schedule. The procedure itself may not take an hour, but it will still probably require a day from your calendar given the sedatives you’ll take. However, that’s nothing compared to the years that colon cancer can take off your life.