This article was written by B&B member Mike (mdevine).
For the past two years, I have had the privilege of discussing Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month with you. Badger and Blade’s efforts with raising awareness of this important topic have been incredibly successful, with the Check 6 initiative a model program that I’d love to see other large organizations emulate. For those who have participated previously, much of what follows will be familiar. Welcome back and please stay involved. For those reading about this for the first time, I hope this informs you on a potentially life saving topic and encourages you to get involved for both yourself and your loved ones.
Since initiated by President Clinton in 2000, March has been designated as Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. This was done to spread awareness of the importance of screening for one of the only preventable cancers. Where, with most types of cancer, the best we can do is to find it early, colon cancer can often be prevented. While the majority of polyps don’t turn cancerous, most colon cancer begins years earlier as a benign polyp. These can be removed during a colonoscopy, dramatically lowering the risk of subsequent cancer. Screening also helps find instances of early-onset cancer, where treatment is easier with a much better chance of long term survival.
I’ve been a primary care physician for over 25 years. I advise patients to get screened on a daily basis. Most agree to get checked, but not all do. I’ve seen more people found to have polyps than I can count. While there is no way of knowing which would have developed malignancies, it is great to realize that many never had to face the life changing battle with cancer. I’ve also had many patients where aggressive screening found cancer early enough that a cure was possible.
A good example of this is a patient of mine named Bill. Early on in my practice, Bill came in as a new patient. He was in his late fifties at the time, and very active. On his first visit, we discussed his prior health screening; he had never had colon or prostate cancer screening before. He agreed to have a digital rectal exam performed as I assured him that if it was any consolation, it was no more pleasant from my end.
Unfortunately for him, or fortunately depending on how you look at it, I found microscopic amounts of blood in his stool. I referred him for a colonoscopy and he was found to have an early stage of colon cancer. He had a successful partial colectomy and did very well.
For the next 25 years, I saw Bill about once every three months. We would talk about how active and happy he was, his experiences square dancing each weekend (well into his eighties), where he was quite a hit with the ladies, and every visit, he thanked me for the fact that he was still alive. He was always matter-of-fact about it. He had a great life and the joy and passion he lived it with were obvious. He passed away recently, and the fact that he lived life fully for a couple of extra decades is something that gives me great satisfaction.
While most of medicine is quite rewarding, other aspects are incredibly difficult. No textbook or medical school adequately prepares you to give people awful news. After all these years, it remains the hardest thing I have to do. When a bad report comes in, I immediately get a sinking feeling in my stomach. It’s hard to sleep, knowing what you have to tell the patient the next morning. When you sit with them and say “it’s cancer”, most everything you say afterwards gets tuned out. In the scheme of things, performing a digital rectal exam is infinitely more pleasant than trying to comfort someone during one of the most traumatic moments of their life. It is made even worse knowing that, despite all your admonitions, they skipped basic screening that could have prevented it or caught it much earlier.
That brings me back to Colorectal Cancer Awareness month.
If you are fifty years old or older, you should be getting routine screening for colon cancer. Despite being the second most common cause of cancer death, colon cancer is largely preventable.
There are several common ways to screen for colon cancer:
1. Yearly testing for occult blood through testing of stool specimens
2. Sigmoidoscopy ( looking with a short scope ) every five years and the gold standard
3. Colonoscopy every ten years.
If you have a first degree relative (parent, sibling or child) with colon cancer or adenomatous polyps before the age of 60, or two first degree relatives diagnosed at any age, screening should start at age 40 or 10 years younger than earliest family member’s diagnosis, whichever comes first. Some patients, like those with Familial Adenomatous Polyposis or Inflammatory Bowel Disease need even more aggressive screening, and should be seeing their physician regularly. If you fall into any of the above categories, please discuss further evaluation with your physician.
For those members who take the initiative to get screened, post here and you will get a neat badge next to your name. I believe that those who participated previously, and are therefore up to date on screening, get one as well. I’ll get the satisfaction of knowing that I helped convince a few members of this great place to get checked. If even one of you gets a couple extra decades as productive as Bill’s were, this will have been the best post I’ve ever written here.
For those who would like to get more involved and help spread the word about colorectal cancer awareness, you can help in many ways. Discuss it with friends and family. Spread the word on social media. Direct anyone with questions here, or to one of the on-line sites discussing cancer prevention. On March 4, I ask you to “Go Blue”, wearing blue for the day. Like pink is worn for breast cancer awareness, blue is used to raise awareness for colorectal cancer. For the month of March, change your avatar to a blue one supporting colorectal cancer awareness. Finally, the most effective approach is to share your stories. Several members have written to thank us previously, after B&B motivated them to get a colonoscopy. If you feel comfortable discussing your story, please post it here; it just may be what finally gets someone in to get checked. Badger and Blade has become my second family, and I know the rest of the team here feel the same. I’d like to extend my sincere thanks for all the hard work they’ve put into this effort. The thought that some will live longer, healthier lives makes this hard work more than worth the effort.