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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

He died 31 years ago this month, and I miss him still. Gone at the age of 57, my father left us much too soon.

He didn’t get to meet his granddaughters — one now an adolescent, the other a kindergartner — or indulge their whims. He didn’t get to take them fishing or show them how to stake tomato plants. He never heard them recite their poems at annual church Easter pageants.

Among his own children, he missed college graduations, weddings and professional accolades. He died before his only son finished medical school and his youngest daughter passed the national exam to become a certified architect. He didn’t live to see his four children grow into a productive adulthood aided by many of the lessons he worked so hard to impart.

I so wish we had known decades ago what we know now: Every adult over the age of 50 should be screened for colorectal cancer. Diagnosed and treated early, it has one of the highest survival rates among that collection of malignant maladies we call “cancer.” My dad was otherwise quite healthy and might have lived to a ripe old age.

March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, when health care advocates labor to spread a simple message: Get screened for colorectal cancer. Research shows that the colonoscopy, considered the gold standard, is very reliable — unlike, say, mammograms, which have a significant rate of false positives.

But there are still too many adults who skip the screenings, either unaware of their importance or uncomfortable with the procedure. That’s a mistake.

Colorectal cancer hasn’t had the wildly successful publicity campaign that has brought so much attention to breast cancer. Advocacy around that disease has taken on the trappings of a cult — with pink ribbons dotting the landscape, fundraisers marketed to men, women and children, and research dollars allotted disproportionately.

Colorectal cancer doesn’t even have the profile now enjoyed by prostate cancer, which has attracted a coterie of activists who’ve taken up the job of educating men about the risks. As a result, prostate cancer screenings are held at churches, barber shops and fraternity gatherings, a boon to middle-aged men who might otherwise skip going to the doctor’s office.

That approach has been especially helpful among black men, who tend to contract prostate cancer at higher rates than men of other ethnic groups, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Indeed, the ubiquitous screenings may explain why the gap in the survival rate between black men and their white and Latino counterparts has narrowed ever so slightly.

So why doesn’t colorectal cancer get the attention it deserves? Among cancers that affect both men and women, it is the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in this country. But it affects parts of the body — the rectum and the colon — that are decidedly unglamorous and, for many, unmentionable.

Then there’s the screening procedure itself. The colonoscopy (again, there are other screening methods, but this is considered the gold standard) is an invasive procedure, and some people find it uncomfortable. The preparation, which involves taking large doses of a bad-tasting laxative, is worse.

It’s not the sort of thing you’d do without a substantial benefit, and there is one: You’re much less likely to die of colorectal cancer. Nor do most people need annual screenings. Even with a history of colon cancer in my family, I undergo a colonoscopy every three to five years.

Health care advocates have undertaken an aggressive effort to increase screenings. One group, the National Colorectal Cancer Roundtable, has launched an “80 Percent by 2018” campaign, intended to ensure that the vast majority of adults over 50 are screened by then. According to experts, that would save an estimated 200,000 lives over 17 years.

I’m so sorry that campaign wasn’t launched decades ago. My father taught me so much about dying with grace and courage, but I’d much prefer that he had been with us for a lot more years.

Cynthia Tucker won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at [email protected]

Photo: Hospitalman Urian D. Thompson, left, Lt. Cmdr. Eric A. Lavery and registered nurse Steven Cherry review the monitor while Lavery uses a colonoscope on a patient during a colonoscopy at Naval Medical Center San Diego. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Chad A. Bascom/Released)