If someone had suggested to me while I was a journalism student at Ohio University some decades ago that I would one day be writing about my colon for a magazine, I might have considered changing majors. But for the past two years, my colon has been a fairly regular topic of conversation with friends, families and doctors; so with a hope that my experience might somehow motivate someone else, here I am, writing about my colon.
Two years ago, at the age of 39, I was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer. There is no pretty cancer, no respectable cancer, no glorious cancer. But when I was fighting colon cancer, I admit I did find myself thinking that it would have been nice to have a cancer that conjured thoughts of pretty pink ribbons and had cute sayings like “Save the Tatas.”
You rarely hear anyone saying they are going to run a 5K to raise money for butt cancer.
My mom’s mom died of ovarian cancer in her mid-40s. My mom fought breast cancer at 43 and succumbed to stomach cancer at 56. So I always expected I, too, would battle cancer. I just wasn’t expecting it so soon, and I certainly wasn’t expecting colon cancer.
Colon cancer is the third-most-prevalent cancer treated at Carroll Hospital Center, behind breast and bronchus/lung cancers. According to the hospital, in 2012 there were 44 colon cancer patients treated, with 14 of them diagnosed at Stage 4, late in the course of the disease.
The key to beating colon cancer is catching it early, and that means paying attention to the way our bodies function and knowing when something is out of whack. I could have easily written off my symptoms as “My body is changing as I look at 40” or “I just need to eat a healthier diet.” And I did write it off for a few weeks. But after watching my mother fight cancer – twice – and eventually die of it, I knew to listen to my body, to notice changes and to insist that my doctor do more than increase my fiber intake when I complained of changes in my bowel movements and occasional unexplained cramps. I listened to my body; I heard my mother’s assurance that those inexplicable changes were warning signs.
Thankfully, I got a happy ending, a new beginning. After surgery and 12 rounds of chemo in a 10-month period, I am cancer-free and healthy. And, because of my colon and their love for me, each of my siblings followed protocol and also got a colonoscopy. (You’re welcome, siblings.)
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend starting regular screenings for colorectal cancer – i.e. getting a colonoscopy – at age 50. I’m not sure if it’s because it has to do with sticking a camera in an uncomfortable place, or if it’s because anything having to do with the rectum is generally unappealing, but colonoscopies tend to get a bad rap. I have had four colonoscopies in the past three years and find that the preparation – a cleansing regimen – is a pain in the … err … well, you know, but the procedure itself is fast and painless.
And after 12 rounds of chemotherapy, I’d much rather have a colonoscopy than a chemo treatment.
March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2014, 50,000 people died from colorectal cancer, which develops in the colon or rectum.
I wish my mom were here so she could appreciate the fact that her struggle was the impetus for me finding my cancer early. I hope you, as our readers, can learn her lessons – now my lessons: Early screenings, annual exams and open dialogue with doctors can save your life. It’s better to find out things are fine than to push back concerns and find out a year later that cancer is too far advanced to treat.
P.S. The color for colon cancer awareness is a beautiful dark blue and there are, in fact, people running 5K races in support of butt cancer. They’re having fun with it, too. There is the Rumpshaker 5K in Alabama, the Full Moon 5K for Colon Cancer in Colorado, the Get Your Rear in Gear 5K, the Booty Ball in Minnesota and the Cheeks ’n’ Sneaks 2K Run/Walk in New Jersey.
For more information and local resources, call the Carroll Hospital Center’s Regional Cancer Center at 410-848-3000 or visit www.carrollhospitalcenter.org/cancer.