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Archive for Friday, March 17, 2006

Test can curb grim statistic

March 17, 2006

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Here's a grim tally. Number of Americans killed annually in auto accidents: 43,000. Deaths from alcohol-related crashes: 17,000. Deaths from driver distraction: 10,000.

Number of Americans who die yearly from firearm-related accidents or assaults: 18,000. Deaths from terrorism on 9-11: 2,986.

Number of Americans who die each year from colon cancer: 56,000.

Forests of newsprint and vats of ink are expended on the dangers of drivers with cell phones, on scofflaws who drive drunk, on the menace that terrorism poses to American lives. Each of those is unquestionably a hazard.

But they are less - and in some cases far less - life-threatening to Americans than colon cancer.

Yet that killer rarely enters into our public and private discussions, or even our minds.

And so we buckle seat belts, designate drivers and keep a beady, hawklike eye on any fellow airline passenger who vaguely resembles a terrorist.

But it doesn't even occur to most of us to get screened for colon cancer.

Let's face it: Colon cancer isn't a sexy topic. Neither is having a colonoscopy. We Americans are a squeamish lot; we'd rather think of anything but that.

And too few of us who consider getting a colonoscopy actually go through with it. We tell ourselves we have no family history. We kid ourselves that we eat right. We dread the test prep.

That's to our loved ones' detriment. Because, according to the American Cancer Society, doctors will diagnose 146,000 new cases of colon cancer this year. And 75 percent of those will be in patients with no family history and no predisposing illness.

Ask the man on the street to name the deadliest cancers and he'll probably reply breast or prostate, since we hear the most about them. But many folks are surprised to discover that colon cancer kills more Americans yearly than any other cancer except that of the lungs.

Four years ago, I was floored when my slim, healthy-eating, non-smoking mother was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer. She had no symptoms, no family history.

Three years ago, she died of the disease. Had doctors been able to nab the cancer in its early stages, she would have had a 90 percent chance of survival.

I'll forever regret not urging her to have a colonoscopy sooner.

I try not to ask a lot of readers. But since March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, please put aside your squeamishness and get tested.

Sixteen states, including Virginia, require private health insurance to cover all methods of colorectal cancer screening, including colonoscopies. Medicare covers them, too.

Yet a recent Harris Interactive poll showed that three out of four Americans aged 50 to 70 - those at highest risk - still don't get regular screening.

What makes us so reluctant? "I think people are embarrassed about it," said Dr. Paul Kovalcik, a Chesapeake, Va., colorectal surgeon. "People also have the feeling that 'nothing's bothering me,' so they don't have it done. Then there are those who are afraid they'll find out something bad."

But, as Kovalcik notes, that reluctance is slowly disappearing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in 2002, some 14.2 million colonoscopies were performed, a number that continues to rise each year.

Spreading the word is a powerful thing. Do your family a favor: Even if you think you're healthy, get screened anyway. Please don't die from embarrassment.

- Bronwyn Lance Chester is a columnist for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk

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