By Anjee Davis, President, Fight Colorectal Cancer
Most of us are taught growing up that what happens in the bathroom should stay in the bathroom – that talking about our bowels is impolite, or inappropriate. But what if I told you that talking about your bathroom habits could help save your life? If we all keep concerns about our bowel health to ourselves, we may miss vital information about a family member’s health or overlook the signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer.
Colorectal cancer is more common than many people think. In fact, it’s the second deadliest cancer in the United States. An estimated 145,600 people were diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2019, and the disease claimed the lives of more than 51,000 last year alone. In 2020, an estimated 53,200 people are expected to die from colorectal cancer.
Stigma is putting lives at risk
Because of the stigma around gastrointestinal health, colorectal cancer needlessly embarrasses people. At the beginning of my career, I went to a support group for survivors to hear from people about their experiences – but there were only three people in the room. The host told me that of all the groups she worked with, the colorectal cancer groups were consistently the smallest, and that people were just too uncomfortable to talk about it. Even my father-in-law wasn’t exempt from this uneasiness – he waited five years to tell me that he’d had 13 polyps removed.
Maybe he thought he was saving us discomfort, or that we wouldn’t want to hear about his colon, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. His health history is now my husband’s and my son’s, and those polyps put both of them at an increased risk for getting colorectal cancer one day. Knowing this piece of our family history helps us and our healthcare providers be proactive about screening so that, hopefully, any anomalies can be caught at an earlier stage when they are most treatable.
Because of the widespread stigma I’ve seen first-hand, I want to make conversations about gastrointestinal health common, comfortable and routine instead of taboo. It is a key step toward helping more people survive this largely preventable disease.
A movement in the making
That’s not to say we haven’t been making progress – survivors of colorectal cancer, along with their families and friends, are telling their stories now more than ever because they understand it can inspire others to get screened, and in turn, remove pre-cancers and catch cancers when they are more treatable. Every precancerous polyp or early stage cancer diagnosis is a screening success.
If you need a dose of inspiration, check out Fight Colorectal Cancer’s #StrongArmSelfie social media movement to see one of the ways people are celebrating the importance of screenings – not only screening that catches pre-cancer and prevents it from developing further, but also screening that catches cancer early when it is more treatable. At Fight Colorectal Cancer, we are always shining spotlights on our community of fighters and survivors for this same reason. Having a sense of community is empowering, and those speaking up about colorectal cancer have made enormous progress in raising awareness. One of the biggest hurdles we continue to face is a misunderstanding of who is at risk. The truth is, it’s not just people over a certain age, men vs. women, or those like my husband and child who have a family history of the disease.
Everyone – and I mean everyone — should be screened according to guidelines. And yet, millions of people within the recommended age group have never been checked. A vital aspect of getting people screened is ensuring people have a choice in their screening tools, from colonoscopy to less invasive stool DNA or stool blood tests. Timely screening can help save lives.
Breaking down stigma, and bringing screening to Americans under 50
Our challenge to tackle stigma now includes a younger generation. Recognizing that colorectal cancer does not discriminate based on age, leaders at the American Cancer Society (ACS) have changed their guidelines to recommend beginning screening for average-risk people at age 45. Newly published findings add to the growing sense of urgency. In 2020, it’s estimated that 17,930 new colorectal cancers will be diagnosed in people under 50 – that’s about 49 cases per day.
While we work to increase screening, Fight Colorectal Cancer has actively led the effort to determine why we are seeing a rise in colorectal cancer under the age of 50 (in fact, over 11,000 people in their 40s were diagnosed in 2016). We are working with the Colorectal Cancer Coalition, Mayo Clinic and others to support research focused on this alarming trend. In addition, we are empowering our grassroots advocates to implement policy at the state level to ensure people have access to screening at age 45, in accordance with ACS guidelines. Patients and their loved ones are using their voices and their stories to reduce barriers to screening for families across the country.
Removing stigma, raising awareness, and being engaged in healthcare research and policy are incredibly important steps, but we can’t stop there. We must make sure people actually get screened. As a community, we are fortunate that there are multiple screening options, including tests that can be used in the privacy of your own home. So this March, I challenge you to encourage someone to get screened, talk about your family history, and post a #StrongArmSelfie. It takes courage to talk about real-life experiences with this disease so that we can break down the stigma that surrounds it, but we can’t hold back. Lives depend on it.
Exact Sciences is a proud sponsor of Fight Colorectal Cancer, however, Anjee Davis has not received payment from Exact Sciences.
Fight Colorectal Cancer. Facts and stats. https://fightcolorectalcancer.org/colorectal-cancer/facts-stats/. Accessed February 17th, 2020.
American Cancer Society. Cancer facts & figures 2019. Atlanta: American Cancer Society; 2019.
American Cancer Society. Cancer facts & figures 2020. Atlanta: American Cancer Society; 2020.
CDC. Use of colorectal cancer screening tests. https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/colorectal/statistics/use-screening-tests-BRFSS.htm. Updated October 22, 2019. Accessed February 17th, 2020.
ACS. Colorectal cancer screening guidelines. https://www.cancer.org/health-care-professionals/american-cancer-society-prevention-early-detection-guidelines/colorectal-cancer-screening-guidelines.html. Accessed February 17th, 2020.
Siegel RL, Miller KD, Goding Sauer A et al, Colorectal Cancer statistics, 2020. CA Cancer J Clin. 2020:1:1-20. https://doi.org/10.3322/caac.21601
CDC. United States cancer statistics: data visualizations. 2016. https://gis.cdc.gov/Cancer/USCS/DataViz.html. Accessed February 20th, 2020.