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.
Time, though, is just one factor. Cancers of the colon and rectal area produce squeamishness in many of us, such that we don’t want to even think about it. While women may talk readily about their mammograms or their struggles with breast cancer — and men are less reluctant to discuss prostate cancer these days — colorectal cancer remains an unmentionable.
Once upon a time, breast cancer — indeed, most cancers — was treated in the same way. That was true until a few brave women with high visibility, including the late Betty Ford, who had just become first lady when she underwent a mastectomy in 1974, stepped out to share their experiences as breast cancer patients. Since then, a massive industry has grown up to fund research, expand awareness and urge women to get screened.
Similarly, public awareness campaigns have sprung up around prostate cancer, which is the most common cancer in men. Advocacy groups, churches and medical organizations have joined forces to educate men about the need for screenings and to make them convenient and accessible.
So far, colorectal cancer has attracted fewer PR campaigns, advocacy groups or general awareness. There are few celebrities who step forward to do what TV journalist Katie Couric did in 2000 and comedian Steve Harvey did in 2009: have their colonoscopies tastefully televised. That awareness needs to expand; colorectal cancer vies with breast cancer to be the second-leading cause of cancer deaths.
So please consider this your personal awareness campaign. Get your colonoscopy. I wish my dad had had one in time.
(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Photo: Maggie Osterburg via Flickr