It’s only been a couple of decades since President Clinton declared that March would be National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. And it’s only been a couple of years since I’ve known about it.
It’s strange, how unaware I was about colon cancer, an illness that is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer and the second leading cause of cancer death (in men and women combined) in the United States. Seriously, before Shawn got colon cancer, I’m not sure I knew anything about it. It was a disease old people got, right? That’s why you got a colonoscopy when you’re old, right?
I guess it could seem surprising that even though Shawn had all sorts of stomach pain and all types of other issues in the fall of 2017, I never once considered that it could be cancer until almost right before he was diagnosed. It was late November, and Shawn’s doctor had run a series of tests. One of them revealed that there was blood in his stool.
“That’s not good,” my dad told me on the phone that evening, after I reported to him what the tests had shown. It was a phrase that made me sit up straighter and turn up the volume on my phone. My dad had retired a few years prior, so he wasn’t actively treating patients or conferring with them on the phone. Still, even though I didn’t understand medicine like he did, I knew my dad didn’t say “that’s not good” unless things were really bad.
“Are you telling me this could be something bad?” I asked my dad.
“Yes,” he said. “It could be cancer.”
It took my breath away. Cancer? At age 40? With no family history? I mean, who got colon cancer at our age? We had little kids – one who wasn’t yet potty-trained! This had to be a mistake, right?
Of course, you know how it ended. Shawn’s diagnosis and death were shocking to me, of course, but his illness wasn’t so shocking in the world of cancer, I came to find out. In fact, in my small widow group, I wasn’t the only person in my 30s who’d lost a partner to colon cancer.
It’s one of those things you just don’t think about, until it’s right in your face. I got a mammogram in my mid-30s, after a doctor was worried about some abnormalities. It was fine, but I was still on high alert. I was taught to give myself a breast exam many years ago, and I’ll never miss a mammogram. But if Shawn hadn’t died of colon cancer, I doubt I’d think about having a colonoscopy at age 45. (Which is the age you should get one, if you haven’t seen the updated guidelines.) But I will need to do it, in just a couple years, and I will do it without hesitation.
My kids will need to have a colonoscopy much, much earlier than that. Though, to be honest, I try not to think about it before they turn 30, because it’s just needless worry before then.
(I still think about it.)
Doctors don’t know why colon cancer rates are rising among young people, though they’re trying to figure it out. Shawn’s doctors are some that are studying it. Maybe by the time my kids are 30, they’ll know. Maybe there will be a cure. Or just something that helps make the illness less terrible and less fatal.
Today is the start of National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. I don’t really know what to do about it, how to mark it. But at the end of the month, I’ll run the DC ScopeItOut 5K in honor of Shawn. (If you’d like to join my team, click here.) And I’m writing this blog, just in case you’re 45 or older and haven’t yet had a colonoscopy. Do it, pretty please, for me and for my kids and for everyone else who knows too much about this awareness month and wishes it was yet another thing we could ignore, like we once did.