Every year, March is colorectal cancer awareness month. One of the latest victims of this common illness was the co-creator of "The Simpson's," Sam Simon, who succumbed March 8 after a courageous 4 year battle against colon cancer. But his created character Homer Simpson said, "Just because I don't care doesn't mean I don't understand." This message is the wrong one for colon cancer, for the following reasons.
Colon cancer is one of the most common cancers in men and women. One out of every 20 people will get colon cancer. With 136,000 Americans being diagnosed every year with this disease, colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer deaths in this country with over 50,000 deaths every year.
Many celebrities in addition to Sam Simon have had colon cancer. This list has included Audrey Hepburn, President Ronald Reagan, Eartha Kitt, Vince Lombardy, Pope John Paul II, Milton Berle, Claude Debussy, and Charles Schulz.
Progress against colorectal cancer has continued. Today, over 65 percent of people with colorectal cancer can be cured (compared to 50 percent in 1970), but only if patients are diagnosed with early stages of the disease. And that is what we must learn, especially this month, from Sam Simon's story and from our other celebrities.
Here are tips to prevent and screen for colorectal cancer, tips which can save your life.
• You should take steps to prevent colon cancer by eating a cancer-preventive diet (less red meat, more fiber and nuts and grains, less fat, and 5 helpings of fruits or veggies per day), exercising, limiting alcohol to 1 or 2 drinks per day, keeping your weight normal, stopping smoking, and taking an aspirin daily (if your doctor sys it is okay).
• If you have a family history of colon cancer, or of cancers of the uterus, stomach, pancreas, bladder, ovary, brain, skin, liver or esophagus, be sure to discuss this with your physician and see if a gene test for Lynch syndrome would be appropriate. If your doctor does not know, get a referral to a consultant to order this for you. For more information on how to ask your doctor about this, see my book Surviving American Medicine.
• You can prevent colorectal cancer by getting a colonoscopy to remove polyps (which can develop into colon cancer if not taken out). Start this at age 50 (or earlier if you have a family history of colon or rectal cancer). In America, sadly, only 59 percent of eligible people in America have had a screening colonoscopy.
• Cure rates are higher if cancer is detected at an early stage. You can detect colon cancer at a more curable stage by getting a colonoscopy, or checking for blood in the stool (using a fecal occult blood test FOBT or fecal immunochemical test FIT), or checking for cancer DNA mutations in the stool (this is a more expensive but also a more sensitive test -- called "Cologuard" -- recently approved by the FDA). Catching this cancer earlier means less extensive surgery, less likelihood of needing a colostomy, and better chance of surviving.
• If you have any symptoms (blood in the stool, abdominal pain lasting more than two weeks, abdominal swelling, indigestion, cramps or weight loss), see your doctor and ask if this might be a warning sign of early colon cancer. This could save your life, so pay attention to these symptoms and check with your physician.
So when Homer Simpson said, "Just because I don't care doesn't mean I don't understand," this is the wrong message for you related to colon cancer. Homer's creator Sam Simon has left us with an important message: understand colon cancer, and also care about improving your diet and health habits, asking your doctor to order those screening tests, and pay attention to any symptoms your body is giving you.