Get over it and get tested

March 29, 2004|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA - It has been 20 years since he died, and I miss him still. He left our lives too soon.

Among his four children, he missed a medical school graduation, two marriages and the birth of his only grandchild. He would have adored her, with her mop of sandy curls and bright brown eyes. He would have set aside the standards of discipline with which he reared his children - no idle hands, no impudence, no acting out in public (and very little in private) - to spoil her hopelessly.

My father's death in March 1984, at the age of 57, taught me something about courage. When he learned his colon cancer was terminal, he said his good-byes. He gave final instructions, asking my mother to bury him in a blue coffin. A deacon, he tended to a few leftover church affairs.

As he lay dying, he told my mother he had dreamed about a huge, brilliantly colored pink rose, and we imagined him forever tending a beautiful rose garden. Even now, we leave bouquets of pink roses on his grave.

My father's death also taught me that he might have lived longer had he had a simple test to detect colon cancer. By the time he was diagnosed in January 1984, the cancer had metastasized to other vital organs, including his liver; he died a mere seven weeks later.

But had he undergone regular colonoscopies starting at age 50, it's quite likely his life - indeed, his vigorous health - would have been spared. Colon cancer is among those rare malignancies in which early detection usually ensures a cure.

Nevertheless, cancer of the colon or rectum is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the country, the Cancer Research and Prevention Foundation says. While women's advocacy groups have given the battle against breast cancer a glamorous prominence and men have overcome their macho qualms to have tests for prostate cancer, both are in denial about the bigger threat: colorectal cancer. It manages to kill so many - nearly 57,000 Americans are expected to die from it this year - because less than half of the 80 million Americans at risk for the disease get screening tests.

In collaboration with other health advocacy groups, the Cancer Research and Prevention Foundation has designated March as National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, urging Americans to get screened. But the prescription is not so easily swallowed. While 91 percent of men 50 and older know they should be tested for colorectal cancer, only 54 percent actually do so, according to a recent survey by the College of American Pathologists.

Compliance is complicated by the fact that Americans remain embarrassed by those particular bodily functions. While we long ago conquered our aversion to public discussions of sex, we remain squeamish about uttering the words "colon" or "rectum." That goes double - no, squared - for our reaction to the screening tests, especially the colonoscopy, which is considered the gold standard.

I have friends with a family history of colorectal cancer who have had to be dragged to their screening tests. And I'll admit that I didn't greet my first colonoscopy with a champagne toast. But I can tell you it wasn't nearly as bad as I'd feared.

My mom and dad had planned a healthy old age together. He had quit smoking by his early 40s. He exercised. He cut back on greasy Southern food. He got annual checkups.

And he looked vigorous and healthy until shortly before his death. In a family album, there's a treasured photo of him standing on his head at a backyard barbecue, delighted that he still could. He was already in his 50s.

But he didn't know that colorectal cancer is a crafty enemy that can sneak up on you, betraying no hint of its invasion until it's too late. He didn't know he needed to be screened.

You know, so get screened. Don't leave your family too soon.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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