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Check out the facts, then get a checkup

Bronwyn Lance Chester (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot

I ‘m constantly amazed at the extent to which Americans try to protect themselves by wearing seat belts, embarking on fad diets, crossing at the light and leaving bungee jumping to others.

But they refuse to get a colonoscopy.

Don’t turn the page. I’m talking to you.

I’m sure you wouldn’t dream of driving away unbuckled. Or walking across the interstate at rush hour.

So it’s a mystery why you’ve chosen to play Russian roulette with colon cancer, a killer that steals more American lives annually than car accidents or gunshot wounds.

This year, more than 56,000 Americans will die from colorectal cancer. That’s nearly the number of U.S. deaths in the entire Vietnam War.

I realize this might not be a topic you want to read about over breakfast. But we’ve got to realize that we’re literally dying from embarrassment. Our squeamishness about the words “colon,” “large intestine” and — go ahead and laugh, I know you want to — “rectum” is causing us to ignore a merciless assassin.

The disease is a silent killer in two ways.

First, while we’re bombarded with reminders to screen ourselves for breast and prostate cancers, we don’t hear much about colon cancer. But it’s the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, and the third most common cancer in men and women, according to the American Cancer Society.

And second, there are often no symptoms until the cancer is in its advanced stages. That factor makes screening even more important.

What? You say you have no family history of colon cancer?

Neither does the vast majority of the nearly 146,000 Americans who’ll be diagnosed with the disease this year. Multiply that number by three, and you’ll get a conservative estimate of how many lives are touched by this cancer annually.

If you’re black, the deck is really stacked against you. Blacks have the highest colon cancer death rate of any racial or ethnic group. And because you are less likely to have a colonoscopy to catch the disease in its early stages, you also have the lowest survival rate.

But it’s not a “man’s disease,” or an “ethnic disease.” It’s a devious equal opportunity scourge, crossing gender and racial lines with impunity.

I’m not telling you this because the White House slipped me a check. I’m talking to you from experience. Four years ago, it did a sneak attack on my vibrant, healthy-living mother. Her life was going along normally; she felt fine. But anemia in routine blood work made her doctor schedule a colonoscopy.

She should have had one 14 years earlier, at age 50. But, like you, she always thought she’d get around to it later.

What it showed was a shocker: Not only did she have colon cancer, but an MRI revealed it had spread to her liver and lymph nodes. Nearly two years ago, it took her life.

Here’s another fact to digest: Colon cancer is preventable.

But — now comes the catch — to prevent it, you have to get a colonoscopy.

March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. I hate to scold readers, so I’ll try to hassle you nicely: Everyone over age 50 should have a colonoscopy. Those with family histories should start even earlier.

“Most people don’t realize that colon cancer starts out as a tiny polyp. If you take them out when they’re small, you can totally head things off at the pass,” said Virginia Beach, Va., surgeon Dr. Laurence Enderson, who said his most commonly performed cancer-removal surgeries are on breasts and colons.

Why don’t more people get screened? “They don’t want to do the prep, and they’re scared it will hurt,” said Enderson.

Most folks who’ve had the procedure, however, will tell you that, despite all the dread, there’s nothing to it. Especially when compared to dying from colon cancer.

Yes, I know. The prep stuff is horrible. And it’s no fun sitting in the bathroom the night before. But think of it as a constructive way to catch up on reading.

And a great way to save your life.

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