Wednesday, September 17, 2014
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My best friend, Joanie, died of colon cancer

Joanie is the reason why I became the person who says to my friends turning 50: "Happy Birthday and please go get a colonoscopy."

My best friend, Joanie, died of colon cancer

Joanie was under 50 — too young for the recommended screening — and by the time she showed symptoms it was too late. Today, instead of celebrating International Women’s Day together, as we did for so many years, I have to write a different kind of post — about National Colon Cancer Screening Day, which is Friday.

Joanie is the reason why I became the person who says to my friends turning 50: “Happy Birthday and please go get a colonoscopy.” (That seemed like a winning idea for a card but someone beat me to it.) And yes, I confess, if they don't listen the first time, I keep after them.

The folks sponsoring the March 8 National Colon Cancer Screening Day have a nice link in case you’d like the full list of risk factors. The site not only gives diet tips — because a healthy diet is a form of prevention — but recipes as well (on the buttseriously blog).

I’m not going to give you links to awful pictures, or a long list of scary facts — just a few: according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. In terms of gender, it is an equal opportunity killer. In terms of race, it is not. More African American men and women die of colon cancer than do their white, American Indian/Alaska Native, Hispanic, and Asian/Pacific Islander counterparts (although plenty of them die as well). Health disparities is a major problem we need to address. For more information visit the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities of the National Institutes of Health.

Now, here’s the good news. According to the CDC, “if everybody aged 50 and over had regular screening tests, as many as 60% of deaths from colorectal cancer could be prevented.” After she was diagnosed, my best friend made her siblings get screened, and guess what? Doctors found some polyps and removed them. Maybe her pushing them to get colonoscopies saved their lives.

Do the math! You might be over 50; you might know a bunch of people over 50. They might not be getting their screenings. You might have missed yours. If you get yourself and your friends to make and keep that appointment you could be saving a lot of lives.

And, like those late-night commercials used to announce: wait, there’s more! Under the Affordable Care Act you may not have a co-payment, co-insurance or deductible to have that colonoscopy — it is a covered preventive service. The same is true for Medicare.

Some people put off their screening because they are fearful of the preparation involved — fasting and cleaning out the colon. 

It might not be pleasant, but as someone who watched my best friend go through surgery, chemotherapy, palliative radiation and all the symptoms those treatments delivered, I promise: getting ready for a colonoscopy is no big deal if you put it in proper perspective.

Uninsured? If you are eligible, starting in October 2013 you can sign up for subsidized health insurance through exchanges that the Affordable Care Act mandates in every state. In the meantime, check the CDC’s website for the Colorectal Cancer Control Program, which provides funding in 25 states and to four tribal organizations.

I’m not Pollyanna. I know that not everyone will be able to access the preventive services, like colonoscopy, that they need. Getting everyone, and I mean everyone, health insurance, is a big problem that we need to be working on. And access to preventive screening is a big part of resolving the disparities in cancer-related deaths.

Now, some readers may know me as one of the writers of the disease blues music posts  — “Mosquito Moan” and “TB Blues”  and "Mosquito Moan" and that sort of thing. And yes, I looked for a great colon cancer blues song to end with. But you know what? All the colon cancer and colonoscopy songs are (forgive me) execrable.

So how about a link to the happy birthday song? Just send it along with an email reminder about cancer prevention when your pals hit the screening age. And if you fit the category and you haven’t been screened, remember, Friday is National Colon Cancer Screening Day: go make an appointment.

Janet Golden, a Rutgers University history professor, specializes in the histories of medicine, childhood and women.


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Janet Golden, PhD Professor of history, Rutgers University-Camden
About this blog

What is public health — and why does it matter?

Through prevention, education, and intervention, public health practitioners - epidemiologists, health policy experts, municipal workers, environmental health scientists - work to keep us healthy.

It’s not always easy. Michael Yudell, Jonathan Purtle, and other contributors tell you why.

Michael Yudell, PhD, MPH Associate Professor, Drexel University School of Public Health
Jonathan Purtle, DrPH, MSc Assistant Professor, Drexel University School of Public Health
Janet Golden, PhD Professor of history, Rutgers University-Camden
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