By Joseph Sapia
A few years ago, Michele Young Battista was going through a “do your little checklist” while turning 50 years old, such as drawing up a will and getting a colonoscopy.
“I woke up from the colonoscopy at 50 (and the doctor saying), ‘You have cancer,’” recalled Battista, now 54, of Colts Neck.
No symptoms. Nothing unusual in blood work. No indicators of colorectal cancer, such as anemia or blood in stool.
With March being National Colon Cancer Awareness Month, Battista and others – those who have battled colon cancer, those who have had cancer scares and the health field professionals who treat them – are pleading for us to talk to our doctors or schedule colonoscopies.
Basically, according to Douglas M. Weine, M.D. of Red Bank Gastroenterology Associates, National Colon Cancer Awareness Month provides a time to “get the word out colorectal cancer is preventable, treatable and beatable.”
Or as his fellow gastroenterologist Subha V. Sundararajan said, “It’s just a way to get people to talk about it, put signs up. If you give it enough publicity, it’s not embarrassing to talk about your butt and gut.”
With Colon Cancer Awareness Month here, various staff and patients of Red Bank Gastroenterology Associates talked publicly about the disease – which killed more than 50,000 people last year in the United States, making it the country’s second-leading cancer killer, only behind lung cancer.
One in 20 Americans has a chance of coming down with colon cancer in his or her lifetime. Every year in the United States, there are 136,000 new cases.
In those 20 to 34, colorectal cancer is expected to rise by 90 percent by 2030.
“Nobody understands why that is happening,” said Sundararajan, although, she added, it is most likely genetics, lifestyle or environment.
Basically, colorectal cancer, or commonly called colon cancer, is a cancer developing in the large bowel, Weine said.
“The most recommended, gold standard for screening for colorectal (cancer) is a colonoscopy,” Sundararajan said.
A colonoscopy involves a doctor viewing the bowel via a tube while the patient is sedated.
“It’s prevention and diagnostic,” Sundararajan said.
Beyond detecting cancer, a colonoscopy can also see and remove “pre-cancerous lesions, so they don’t have a chance to develop into a cancer,” Weine said.
“Sometimes, your body talks to you,” said Lynn Glynn, 50, of Atlantic Highlands. “Sometimes, it doesn’t.”
In Lynn Glynn’s case, her body was not talking to her.
Yes, she was being treated by Red Bank Gastroenterology for a stomach problem, but it had nothing to do with colon cancer. But with Glynn being on the cusp of 50, when people traditionally get a colonoscopy for the first time, Weine suggested a colonoscopy.
During the procedure, Glynn had a high-risk polyp, one that was close to changing into cancer, removed.
“The man saved my life,” said Glynn, 50, of Atlantic Highlands. “This doctor, being attentive to detail, saved my life.”
Susin Mattera, 55, of Holmdel went in for a routine colonoscopy, her first – after she met a woman through her job and the woman strangely suggested she get a physical.
“Sometimes people come into your life for whatever purpose,” said Mattera, speaking of the woman she met.
During Mattera’s colonoscopy, cancer was found. She had to have 30 percent of her colon removed. Her colon was reattached and she is OK.
“They got it all, thank God,” Mattera said. “Not one symptom.”
Generally, most people should get their first colonoscopy at 50, with blacks getting theirs at 45, according to Red Bank Gastroenterology.
Others should get a colonoscopy earlier if they have a family history or have anemia, rectal bleeding, abdominal pain or a change in bowel movements, the doctors said.
“It’s important to talk to your doctor about early screening,” Sundararajan said.
Only 59 percent of those 50 and older are actually getting screened, the doctors said.
The poor screening number is likely attributable to “people fear the test or feel it’s disgusting or gross,” Weine said. “I think people misinterpret it’s going to be a painful procedure.”
People place various obstacles in the way of getting screened: from they do not want to talk about a private part of their bodies to the laxative preparation to clean the bowels being annoying because of the taste of the oral laxative and the constant use of the bathroom.
The “prep is a piece of cake” compared to fighting cancer, Battista said.
Because a family does not have a colon cancer history does not mean a family member is safe from getting colon cancer, Glynn said. She said colon cancer is a disease that one can easily take steps in fighting before it is too late – by getting a colonoscopy.
On Friday, March 4, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Red Bank Gastroenterology representatives will be at the Red Bank Super Foodtown supermarket, 362 Broad St., for Dress in Blue Day for colorectal cancer awareness.
“I go blue for my mother,” said Bonnie Miller Woodward, a nurse at Red Bank Gastroenterology.
Woodward’s mother, Lois Miller of Little Silver, died of colon cancer at 62 in 1985. Woodward wears a colon-shaped necklace.
“I said I’m going to have a colon made to wear around by neck,” Woodward said. “It’s a conversation piece.”
On Saturday, July 16, the Jersey Shore Undy Run/Walk will raise money for colon cancer awareness at Pier Village, Long Branch. Information is available at the Colon Cancer Alliance, website: www.ccalliance.org.
In Battista’s case, she was operated on two weeks after her colonoscopy’s find of the 2-inch-wide cancerous tumor. She had about a foot of colon removed, along with her appendix and 17 lymph nodes.
Battista’s colon was reattached and six months of chemotherapy followed. The treatment caused constipation, diarrhea, anxiety, nausea, a loss of appetite, mouth sores, hair loss, and tiredness.
“You feel like the flu at your worst moment,” said Battista, recalling the tiredness.
So far, Battista has been cancer-free for four years.
“I have a 70 percent chance of making five years cancer-free,” Battista said.
Now, Battista tells her story through a blog, preaches and nags people to get a colonoscopy.
“If I can help one person not to go through what I did,” Battista said, “that’s my thing.”
“All my friends, I preach, ‘You’ve got to go for a colonoscopy,’” Mattera said. “It’s so important, I tell everybody, ‘Do go.’”
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