A stealthy killer

April 03, 2006|By CYNTHIA TUCKER

ATLANTA -- My mother didn't quite know what to do with some of my father's mementos. The decor of her new house wouldn't accommodate all of his treasures, including the head of a 10-point buck he had proudly mounted.

So I brought it home with me, along with one of his Army uniforms. My decor (such as it is) doesn't exactly accommodate mounted animal heads, either. Nor would I find such a display an easy thing to explain to my friends, since I live in a camouflage-free Atlanta neighborhood with, I suspect, zero National Rifle Association memberships.

The mounted head now rests on the floor in a rarely used room, and the uniform hangs in a closet. While I couldn't figure out what to do with them, I couldn't bring myself to part with them. They remind me too much of him.

My father died March 4, 1984, 22 years ago, at the age of 57. And I miss him still. He would have celebrated his 80th birthday in August but probably would have considered himself yet tough enough and skillful enough to go deer hunting in November. Before he was diagnosed with a terminal illness, I don't remember that he had ever been sick.

He had always been vigorous and active, hunting and fishing, walking several miles weekly with my mother and tending his tomatoes.

Colon cancer is a stealthy and diabolical enemy. It spread its deadly sleeper cells to his kidneys and liver before he realized he was ill. If there was any mercy in his death, it was that he did not linger in pain. He died a mere seven weeks after diagnosis.

Back then, the medical community did not issue frequent warnings about the need for a diagnostic test for colon cancer. Now it does. Though National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month (March) has just ended, it's not too late to give you this news: If you are 50 or older, you should get a colonoscopy. If you have a family history of colon cancer, get the test sooner.

Colon cancer is among those rare malignancies in which early detection usually ensures a cure. According to experts, if the cancer has not spread beyond the colon, 80 percent to 90 percent of patients are alive after 10 years. 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 - more than 56,000 Americans are expected to die of it this year - because fewer than half of the 80 million Americans at risk for the disease get screening tests.

Our culture embraces the violent and the vile, the profane and the wild, but there is still something about the subject of colorectal cancer that makes grown men blush. At a dinner party, you can discuss your politics, your child's SAT score and your neighbor's sexual misadventures, but broach the subject of a colonoscopy, and you're likely to find yourself stricken from invitation lists. That silence is deadly.

While there are other diagnostic tests, including a new "virtual" colonoscopy, most specialists still consider the old-fashioned colonoscopy the gold standard. And it's not nearly as grueling as you may have been led to believe - certainly a lot less so than cancer. If you've ever watched a loved one die of the disease, as I have, you won't hesitate to have the procedure.

I try to honor my father's memory. I try not to taint the good name he left me. I try to live by the standards of courage and integrity he and my mother taught me. And I have promised myself I'd spread the word about the need for colonoscopies.

I even broached the subject with friends in church, just after the worship service ended. While the pastor's wife seemed slightly taken aback, she'll probably hear from me on the subject again. I'm not ashamed to proselytize. And I don't think my dad would be ashamed of me, either.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

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