March 2011 - Colon Cancer: A Personal Story

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It is often said that when you go to college, you'll make friends that you'll keep for life. And so is the case with one of my dear friends, whom I'll call Cecelia*. She and I were biology majors, took our lab classes together, studied for finals together, and have continued our friendship for more years than I care to tell. We've laughed, cheered each other on with our careers, been there for each other-no matter the problem.

So you can imagine my concern when she called me to say that she had colon cancer. It was like a bad dream. How could this have happened? At first, I wanted to blame her doctor for not making sure she had her screening. But to my surprise, her doctor wasn't to blame. In fact, her doctor had urged her repeatedly to schedule a colonoscopy. So why didn't she get the colonoscopy? The truth was, she simply never wanted to get a colonoscopy because she didn't "like the procedure". This floored me because the procedure is pretty quick and done while you're under a light general anesthesia. It's almost always done in an outpatient facility-so there's no hospitalization involved. In fact, the worst part is the "prep" you have to do the day before the procedure so that the colon is cleaned out sufficiently for the physician to get a good look inside the colon. The beauty of the colonoscopy is that if the physician finds a polyp (small growth) during the colonoscopy, it can be removed right away, sent for biopsy, and the appropriate action taken. There is no pain. In many instances, removal of the cancerous polyp takes care of the problem. It's when the cancerous polyp is allowed to grow and spread that a patient's life is endangered. All in all, I'd say it's two days at most (the day of the prep and the day of the procedure) that you're mildly inconvenienced.

Because my friend did not get the screening, here's what happened. She had a very large tumor in the colon. She underwent 6 weeks of extensive chemotherapy with radiation, followed by extensive surgery, followed by another round of chemotherapy. She experienced all of the side-effects of the therapy-hair loss, weakness, nausea, vomiting. In addition to the physical discomfort, there was also financial discomfort. She was unable to work during this time, so she lost much needed income at a time when she really needed money to handle ongoing household expenses and pay for medical co-pays (yes, she had insurance, but insurance does not cover all costs 100%). Luckily, her husband was able to care for her and provide support. It has taken her over a year to even begin to recover from this entire ordeal.

My point in sharing this story is that if you're age 50 or over OR if you have a high risk of developing the disease, make screening for colon cancer** a part of your journey to wellness. I understand that none of us relishes the idea of colon cancer screening and I admit it's not the most pleasant experience. But all things considered, colon cancer screening tests are small inconveniences that yield big rewards that save time, money, and lives!

With you on your journey to wellness,
Dr. Mary S. Harris

* Name changed to protect privacy
** American Cancer Society, Cancer Facts & Figures for African Americans, 2011-2012, pp. 18-19.

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