March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month.
Why is it that when our children are young, talk about poop is commonplace? But once they are potty-trained, we rarely speak about it. Why are we so uncomfortable to discuss these issues with our spouses, children or doctors? Perhaps this may be a contributing factor to the high rate of colon cancer in America. When diagnosed early, colon cancer is not only beatable, but preventable. Yet it has the second highest cancer death rate in the US and Canada. It continues, however, to be something we do not want to talk about.
I was that type of person just a few years ago. I wouldn’t talk about anything that had to do with my bowels to anyone except that I was emphatic that I’d never have a colonoscopy. No one was going to touch me there when I was unconscious.
All of that changed, however, when I filled the toilet bowl with blood. A lot of blood, which most likely saved my life. If it had been a small amount, I probably would have ignored it. Nervously, I went to my doctor, who advised that it was probably due to internal hemorrhoids, which is common among women who have had multiple pregnancies. If the bleeding continued, however, she told me to see a gastroenterologist. The bleeding subsided, but then came back a month later with a vengeance. I went to the gastroenterologist who reviewed my medical history, which contained little information since I was adopted as an infant. Because of that, he recommended a colonoscopy, which made me very uncomfortable. I asked him when and he replied, “Sooner, rather than later.” Those words resonated very loudly in my mind so I immediately scheduled the procedure.
I dreaded everything about the procedure. I heard the prep wasn’t pleasant so I sent my family out of the house for the evening. Being modest and a control freak, I was terrified of the procedure, but I needed to know the reason for the bleeding. I checked my anxiety and modesty at the door, kissed my husband good-bye in the waiting room and tried to find comfort in the nurse’s words, “It’s probably nothing.” The looks on their faces told a very different story when I woke up. The doctor said he had found a golf ball-sized tumor that he was certain was malignant. My husband kept asking him to repeat what he was saying. I insisted he had the wrong patient. I was only 45 years old and in great health. I’ve since learned that a tumor of that size had started developing as a polyp 7-10 years earlier. I had been completely asymptomatic for all those years. Had I ignored the bleeding and not had the colonoscopy, the cancer would have been more widespread. Further tests and surgery determined that I was Stage IIIA. Lymph nodes were involved, but fortunately, it had not yet spread to my liver or lungs. I would need chemotherapy.
When I first heard the words malignant and chemotherapy, I feared I wouldn’t live long enough to see what every mother dreams of: graduations, weddings, grandchildren. But those thoughts were replaced with how shattered my loved one’s lives would be. And I was crying not for me, but for my parents who had already lost their only son. They didn’t deserve to bury their only daughter. And for my husband, who had watched his sister lose her battle to cancer a few years earlier. And for my two beautiful teenage sons who I couldn’t even look at without bursting into tears.
My oncologist, Dr. Gamil Hanna, from the University of Pennsylvania network at Penn Medicine in Cherry Hill, was optimistic that my cancer was curable. That was a huge factor in my success. It was a long and difficult year, but I kept reminding myself and my family that it was a temporary situation, a bump in the road and a small price to pay in exchange for a long life ahead. While it was physically and emotionally challenging, I remained incredibly optimistic. I went to chemo treatments knowing that each harsh treatment was destroying any remaining cancer cells and helping me reach the end of the nightmare. I did what I had to do not only for myself, but for my loved ones. And today, three years after my diagnosis, I am cancer-free. I am a proud survivor, advocate and cancer coach.
The rate of newly diagnosed colon cancer cases has rapidly declined over the past two decades due to substantial improvement in colorectal cancer screening rates. Colonoscopies can prevent cancer. If pre-cancerous polyps are found, they are removed during the procedure preventing them from developing into malignancies. If a polyp has developed into a malignancy, colon cancer is highly treatable and curable when detected early. The standard chemotherapy for colon cancer has a very good success rate. The five-year survival rate is 90% for those who are diagnosed in the early stages of colon cancer. Colonoscopies can prevent death. When your doctor talks to you about getting a colonoscopy, listen and do not put off this screening. It can save lives. It saved mine.
Moral: The inconvenience of a colonoscopy is minor compared to colon cancer. Be aware of colon cancer symptoms in women.