Sometimes You Can Prevent Cancer


I’ve had three colonoscopies within five years and am still colorectal cancer-free.

Most of us want to believe we can do things to control the chance that something bad will happen — not walking alone in deserted areas late at night comes immediately to mind, obeying clear signs of danger like lowered crossing gates for the many trains that crisscross Illinois, stopping at red lights. You probably get the picture. Commonsense choices can mean less risk.

I think that’s true with risk reduction in cancer, too.

As I type this, I think of my friend and fellow cancer patient Stephanie Walker, who from the stage at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium pointed out, “We eat what we can afford” during a conversation about obesity and breast cancer. Her words have stuck with me because they are so true, not only for the food we eat but for other cancer/health risk factors like living in safe and healthy communities, reducing stress, and even regular doctor visits.

Commonsense choices seem easy when there are no barriers to making them.

What I consider controllable risk factors for me: Not smoking; maintaining (or achieving) a healthy weight; regular exercise; eating well by including vegetables, fruits, whole grains and minimizing consumption of red meat, deli meat, alcohol and highly processed foods. These are all, incidentally, things I largely did prior to my stage 4 breast cancer diagnosis, which may be why I am especially sensitive to use of “prevention” when talking about individual cancer risk.

Also on my list: Getting the health screenings and vaccinations recommended by my primary care physician, including a colonoscopy.

In the United States, March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month.

Not quite as marketable and “sexy” as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but unlike breast cancer, where mammograms pick up on cancer after it has developed and even if you are high-risk, the not-always-successful prevention choices feel extreme with surgery, anti-estrogen therapy and frequent monitoring, colorectal cancer falls into the “highly preventable” cancer category. Of course, this isn’t always true, and barriers to making it “highly preventable” for everyone are rampant.

At the time I was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer, I had just turned 50 years old. I remember asking about getting a colonoscopy during that first year and my doctors stated that I had more urgent things to worry about. Harsh but true.

I didn’t ask again about a colonoscopy until it became clear that my treatment response to metastatic breast cancer was unexpectedly and unusually strong. I was 53 or 54 by the time I had my first colonoscopy and the results showed that I needed to repeat it in three years. At that three-year mark, none of my doctors mentioned a colonoscopy. I had carefully read the earlier results and brought it up to my primary care physician. A delay due to pandemic scheduling meant more than three years had passed, and these new results instructed that I repeat the colonoscopy in six months.

None of this is good news.

After a lot of logistical maneuvering, I had that six-month repeat colonoscopy at about eight months. Still not perfect results, but I was put back on the three-year plan.

I tell you all this because none of these colonoscopies revealed cancer, but they did show early risk for it. Risk that was removed from my colon —at least temporarily.

This procedure, in my opinion, has so far prevented colon cancer for me.

This week, this month, this year, talk to your doctor about your colorectal health. Colorectal screening, such as a colonoscopy, is recommended for everyone at age 45. However, there is a worrisome trend of people under 50 developing colorectal cancer. According to the Colorectal Cancer Alliance, “The incidence rate of colorectal cancer is rising by about 2% annually in young people. By 2030, researchers predict that colorectal cancer will be the leading cause of cancer deaths in people ages 20-49.”

I’ve learned that symptoms of colorectal cancer don’t always show up, but to be especially watchful of changing bowel habits, persistent abdominal discomfort, rectal bleeding, weakness/fatigue or unexplained weight loss.

As with everything health-related, regardless of age, if you believe there is something going on be persistent in getting the care you need. The Colorectal Cancer Alliance has a wealth of information, including screening cost resources, on their website at

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