"Ask yourself, would you rather endure a day of minor discomfort from a laxative and a drowsy experience in a treatment room once every ten years, or would you rather have invasive surgery to remove part of your colon, chemotherapy and radiation, an ostomy bag, the threat of infection and the cloud of recurring cancer over your head for the rest of your life? I say that’s an easy call. Get your screening."
When I turned 50, my doctor wanted me to have a colonoscopy. That’s the age when most men and women should have their first one to detect and remove colon polyps that can later turn to cancer.
As an African-American, I was already five years late according to recommendations by the American College of Gastroenterology. But, I said no. I wasn’t about to have a medical device anywhere near my nether regions. Call it a man thing. My pride got in the way of good judgment.
My wife Jean was a supervisor in outpatient surgery at Sentara Virginia Beach General Hospital at the time. She dogged me about getting a screening, but not even she could talk me into it. Five years later, I saw blood in my stool. A screening colonoscopy found colon cancer. I had had no symptoms at all. The doctor told me
there was a 50% chance it had already spread to my kidneys and liver.
I thought that was the beginning of the end of my life. I worried about Jean and my five children. I thought I would die a slow and painful death and I did not want to burden them with that. I had gambled with my life and I was convinced I had lost. Jean got me into surgery at Sentara Virginia Beach General “quick, fast and in a hurry,” she likes to say.
The surgeon removed part of my large intestine and reconnected my colon. Lo and behold, I was cancer free. I did not need radiation or chemotherapy, or an ostomy bag. I thanked God that I had been given a second chance.
Now, I tell any man who will listen to my story to get a colonoscopy at age 50 and a digital rectal exam during your annual physical. Colon and prostate cancer are two of the most preventable cancers, yet they occur in alarmingly high numbers among African-Americans and are more likely to kill people of color than whites.
Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer among African- Americans, yet, African-Americans are less likely to receive annual screenings than whites and more likely to have colon cancer diagnosed in later stages when it is harder to treat and survival is less likely.
African-American women have the same chance of getting colon cancer as men and are more likely to die from it than any other population group. Why is this?
There are many factors.
- A diet high in fat and low in vegetables and fiber can contribute.
- Obesity and tobacco contribute.
- Access to care, a traditional barrier to minorities, may contribute.
- Genetics can play a role. Be sure to tell your doctor if anyone in your family has had colon or prostate cancer.
Virginia Department of Health data from 2004 to 2008 indicate that mortality rates from colorectal cancer among African-Americans were much higher than for whites. Per 100,000 population, the rate was 29.3% for African-American men and 20.8% for African-American women. It was 19.2% for white men and 13.3% for
A recent report by the American Cancer Society on cancer in African-Americans says that the racial disparity in cancer deaths in the U.S. is decreasing, but that African-Americans continue to bear a greater cancer burden than any other racial group in the country. Death rates for smoking-related cancers and prostate cancer have decreased faster for African- American men than white men, but the gap has widened for colorectal cancer for men and women.
That tells me we have to increase screening colonoscopy rates among African-American men and women. There is no reason for people to die from this disease. It can be prevented through polyp removal or discovered early and treated effectively.
Since my experience with colon cancer, I eat leaner meat and more fresh vegetables. I still like my fried chicken, but I take off the skin, which is full of fat, or eat just a little. I exercise more than I used to and, at 63, eight years out, I feel pretty good.