From Ryan Reynolds’ viral video of his colonoscopy to the tragic passing of 43-year-old actor Chadwick Boseman, more attention has been placed on colorectal cancer in the past few years. As a two-time colon cancer survivor who wouldn’t be here had I not trusted my instincts and been screened, I’m urging you to practice self-care and “get your rear in gear.”
A report published in JAMA predicts colorectal cancer will be the No. 1 cancer killer of people aged 20-49 by the year 2030. Let that sink in.
That shouldn’t be the case. Colorectal cancer is one of the most preventable cancers. And when it’s caught earlier, there’s a greater chance of survival. That’s why medical experts recommend people who are at average risk start screening at age 45 instead of 50. Those with a family history of colorectal cancer are at higher risk and should start screening even earlier.
At 46, I was raising my teenage son, working and leading a busy lifestyle. I was also suffering from extreme exhaustion. When my primary care physician suggested I get a colonoscopy, I thought I’d walk away with some information about my gut health that would help me make better decisions about my health. I never expected to be told I had Stage 4 colon cancer that had spread to my liver.
I often think about how different life would be had I received my first screening a year earlier. Still, I am lucky and incredibly grateful to be alive.
After six years of surgeries, chemo, radiation, follow-up colonoscopies, another diagnosis, beating cancer for the second time and adapting to a new lifestyle with a colostomy bag, I cannot underscore the importance of timely screenings — especially a colonoscopy.
While there are different types of screenings, a colonoscopy is the only one that can detect and remove polyps before they become cancerous. Even if you take an at-home test and receive a positive result, you still need a follow-up colonoscopy.
Let’s be honest, getting a colonoscopy isn’t necessarily fun. But it’s essential for maintaining a healthy and fulfilling life. In addition, there are ways to make talking about your gut health and the colonoscopy process less intimidating – dare I say, tolerable!
Trust Your Gut, Literally
I didn’t have traditional colorectal cancer symptoms, such as altered bowel habits, rectal bleeding or abdominal pain, but I knew my chronic fatigue wasn’t normal. In listening to my body, my care team was able to help me understand the source of my concerns and overcome my cancer diagnosis.
Be Open With Your Family
I didn’t have a family history of colorectal cancer. Still, that’s crucial information to know and share with your doctor. You’ll likely need to be screened earlier and more frequently. Likewise, if you have polyps removed or are diagnosed with cancer, tell your family. Encourage your family to be open. You can help save their lives.
Don’t Go Down the Dr. Google Rabbit Hole
If you notice any symptoms, tell your doctor and advocate for your health. Save yourself the time and headache of looking up plausible explanations and self-diagnosing. If you brush off your symptoms or delay care, you may put your health at greater risk.
Make Colonoscopy Prep a Party
The prep for a colonoscopy really isn’t that bad. If anything, it’s just inconvenient. That’s why I try to make it a party! When friends are prepping, I pledge to drink water with them. Each hour, I’ll text them a picture of my empty glass for motivation. The actual colonoscopy is pretty painless, quick and forgettable.
I beg you to trust yourself, listen to your providers and make poop jokes if it helps add some levity to a not-so-exciting topic. The more we talk about it, the more awareness we can generate and the more lives we can save. Give yourself the gift of life and talk to your doctor about when you should be screened.
Brenda Thompson Green is a two-time colon cancer survivor who has made it her mission to advocate for colorectal cancer awareness and empower people to take control of their health. She also works at AMSURG, a leading healthcare provider in the detection and prevention of colorectal cancer.