By Teri Griege, Colorectal Cancer Thriver
On an average day in 2009, you could likely find me running, swimming laps in my neighborhood pool, or biking miles in and around St. Louis. I completed my first marathon in my 40s. At 48, I was in great shape and training for what would be my second Ironman when I recognized gastrointestinal symptoms that gave me pause. I almost ignored them, assuming they were related to my extensive training, but intuition nudged me to speak to my doctor. This doctor soon gave me the shock of a lifetime – a stage IV colorectal cancer diagnosis. That conversation changed my life, but aggressive treatment coupled with my unswerving will to fight allowed me to continue competing and thriving despite my illness.
While I admit there probably aren’t many others who completed an Ironman while undergoing chemotherapy, I’m one of many who will face colorectal cancer in their 40s. In 2016 alone, 11,122 women and men had to have the same conversations where they learned they had colorectal cancer. That’s a concerning number of people getting a disease that we’ve been told, until recently, we shouldn’t be concerned about until 50. I learned the hard way that there’s more to know about screening for colorectal cancer – it’s no longer a rite of passage that comes with turning 50.
My athletic training prepared me for cancer more than I could’ve imagined. Just as I take one step at a time when training, I approached each aspect of treatment as a vital step along the greater journey. Now that my scans are stable with regular monitoring, it’s my mission to inspire others to talk to their doctors, have open conversations with family members and get screened.
Know your personal risk and get screened
Colorectal cancer is often considered the most preventable, but least prevented cancer. It can take a number of years for precancerous lesions to progress to late-stage cancer. Screening tools can detect these early cancers, allowing health care providers to treat them early – but this is only possible when people get screened. Because of this potential for prevention, knowledge truly is power.
Because of all the healthy choices I’d made in life, and without any known family history, I never considered myself at risk for colorectal cancer. The truth is, over two thirds of people diagnosed with colorectal cancer do not have a family history, and there are a variety of health issues, related conditions and lifestyle factors that put people at increased risk. According to guidelines, everyone at average risk should be screened at the proper age.
To catch more cases at earlier stages when the cancer is most treatable, the American Cancer Society recently took an important step to update their guidelines, recommending screening for those at average risk starting at age 45.
Talk with your doctor about your health and care preferences
I’ve seen the life-changing potential of screening first-hand: after my diagnosis, I encouraged my sisters Mimi and JoAnn, both in their 60s, to be screened for the first time. We were devastated when JoAnn was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer, and Mimi had precancerous polyps. Happily, both swiftly received treatment. Mimi’s precancerous polyps were removed, a great example of colorectal cancer living up to its label as ‘the most preventable cancer’.
As emotional as it was to walk alongside my sisters through this, I realized the power of sharing my story. This lit a fire in me to educate others and help get as many people screened as possible, through whatever option they choose in partnership with their health care provider.
I’m a cancer thriver not only because my cancer was caught and treated, but because I’ve committed to being a conversation starter and helping people understand the colorectal cancer risk we all have – whether it’s high or average. Even if you’re not at the age for screening just yet, I encourage you to be a conversation starter like me: talk to your health care provider and your family about risk factors as well as signs and symptoms.
Become a conversation starter and spread the word
I’ve been told the hardest part of a triathlon is getting to the starting line and having the determination to try. Reducing the impact of colorectal cancer has a less intimidating starting point – a conversation.
Though it could be uncomfortable to discuss health history with your family, knowing your risk is crucial. As part of a broad discussion of risk factors, find out if you have a family history of colorectal and related cancers. Because of my sisters’ and my own experiences, our children all have a family history of colorectal cancer and are at increased risk. They’ll have to follow stricter screening guidance that can impact screening age and the type of test needed, but we’re all thankful that they are armed with this information at a young age and can make informed health decisions when the time comes.
Screening gives you insight into your future, and knowing your screening results, regardless of the outcome, outweighs being in the dark. After screening, you can thrive no matter your circumstance – whether you’re cancer-free or you join the fight, we can win the race against colorectal cancer.
Data from U.S. Cancer Statistics Working Group. U.S. Cancer Statistics Data Visualizations Tool, based on November 2018 submission data (1999-2016): U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Cancer Institute; www.cdc.gov/cancer/dataviz, June 2019. New colon and rectal cancer cases by age chart available at http://bit.ly/2016_CRC_new_cases_by_age.
Itzkowitz SH, Incremental advances in excremental cancer detection tests. JNCI. 2009;101(18)1225-1227.
ACS. Colorectal Cancer Risk Factors. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/colon-rectal-cancer/causes-risks-prevention/risk-factors.html#references. Accessed March 2020
ACS. American Cancer Society Guideline for Colorectal Cancer Screening. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/colon-rectal-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/acs-recommendations.html. Accessed