A preventive health screening for colon cancer may have saved my life. And I can thank a tweet from Jackson County Sheriff Darryl Forté for pushing me to get tested.
At 58, Forté has had four colonoscopies in the 12 years since he was first diagnosed with prostate cancer. Early detection may have saved his life as well.
Last year, Forté, who is the first Black sheriff in Jackson County and was the first Black police chief in Kansas City, underwent hormone treatment for prostate cancer. He has been public about his fight and emphatic about the importance of preventive health screenings.
“That’s the key,” said Forté, who is now in good health. “Early detection. You have to step up. Don’t wait.”
I recently underwent my first colonoscopy at the urging of Dr. Aaron Ellison, a primary care physician recommended by Forté in a tweet. During the procedure, doctors discovered and removed two large polyps, small clumps of cells that form on the lining of the colon. Most are considered benign, but a biopsy revealed that these were precancerous.
I was shocked by the news. Good thing I was screened, the doctor told me. He gave me a clean bill of health, but I am now considered high-risk.
“Come back and see me in three years,” he said.
“God is good,” Forté told me when I explained that his tweet nudged me to get screened. “That’s good to know. I encourage you to share your story. You can save lives.”
The suggested age for a colon screening is 45 and every 10 years after that, according to the American Cancer Society. I’m 46.
Colon cancer is preventable and treatable but can be fatal if found in later stages.
Patients with a family history of colon cancer should be tested earlier and more frequently. No one in my immediate family had been diagnosed with the disease, but colon screenings for my younger siblings and children now must begin at 40, per doctor’s orders.
African Americans at higher risk for colon cancer
Black Americans are affected by colon cancer at disproportionately higher rates than other ethnic groups, the American Cancer Society says. African-Americans are about 20% more likely to get colorectal cancer and about 40% more likely to die from the disease.
I had none.
“A lot of folks often say, ‘Doc, I feel fine. I eat healthy foods. I have no symptoms,’ ” Gray said. “But no one is immune to colon cancer.”
Actor Chadwick Boseman, best known for his role in “Black Panther,” died in August of colon cancer. He was 43. Last month, the disease claimed the life of 53-year-old actress Natalie Desselle-Reid, who co-starred with Halle Berry in the 1997 movie “B.A.P.S.”
The high-profile deaths opened many eyes in the Black community, said Rachel Issaka, a gastroenterologist and assistant professor at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington in Seattle.
Colon cancer can be prevented with regular screenings, she said, and Black people who are at higher risk should make the elective procedures a regular occurrence.
“Screening is not optional,” Issaka said.
While rates of colorectal cancer have declined in older age groups in recent years, the rate has skyrocketed among younger people of color, health experts say.
Gray and Issaka, who are Black, sit on the Fight Colorectal Cancer’s Health Equity Committee. Every day, they see how health disparities disproportionately affect African Americans across the country.
“We recognize that African Americans tend to present younger, later-stage colorectal cancer than other groups,” Gray said. “But it’s preventable and beatable when we get screened.”
As I can attest, early detection can save families unnecessary heartbreak.