March is colon cancer awareness month. I’d deserve to have my board certification in Gastroenterology revoked if I didn’t write about colon cancer this month. Like any ‘disease awareness month,’ many of you are going to come across articles dealing with colon cancer statistics and colon cancer symptoms. I’m going to take a more a more personal approach and share a few of my experiences with colon cancer as a gastroenterologist over a series of posts throughout the month. The goal is to convey why I think colon cancer awareness is critical. In this post, I want to share a story that involved me explaining what I do as a gastroenterologist to a class of high school kids.
What’s a Gastroenterologist?
I’m all about giving back to the community, so I frequently give talks about medicine at local high schools. One of my teacher friends had me talk about gastroenterology to one of her classes at a school on Chicago’s West Side. Overall it was a great experience, but explaining colonoscopies to a bunch of high school kids is a set up for disaster.
I walked into the classroom with regular street clothes (including skinny jeans) and an edge like the late Bernie Mac during his first time performing on HBO’s Def Comedy Jam.
The kids started off rowdy, but they quieted down quickly when I started with a simple ‘sup.’ Once everyone settled down, I started to explain what a gastroenterologist does. My introduction involved asking them to name all the slang/non-curse words for ‘stool’ they could imagine. The kids were definitely engaged. We somehow came up with a list of 47 words (including a few in Spanish). After telling them that a gastroenterologist deals with symptoms like constipation, diarrhea, vomiting (not ‘vomicking’), and belly pain; I went on to explain the procedures we do in gastroenterology.
I should have never started with colonoscopy. Before I could even get the word colonoscopy out of my mouth, a little dude in the back blurted out, “Are you the dude who puts camera’s in booties?” The students laughed so loud that I had to make sure my skinny jeans didn’t have a tear in them. Before the laughter stopped, another little guy blurted out, “This dude’s nasty!” That started a whole chain reaction of ‘roasting’ and laughs. One student even whipped out a cell phone and took a picture of me—one more reason why I’m not on Snapchat. I looked at my teacher friend for a ‘lifeline’—she shook her head like she wanted nothing to do with the ridicule that was raining down on me.
The kids only stopped laughing when I asked them if they heard of colon cancer and two students mentioned that their parents had colon cancer. Each student discussed their painful experiences of watching their family members battle cancer. Unfortunately, for one student, their parent died from colon cancer.
There was nothing in my presentation that was more powerful than their testimonies. They did my whole presentation by sharing their stories. All I did was add that I perform colonoscopies to prevent kids like themselves from having similar stories.
Two key points that explain why I perform colonoscopies
- Colonoscopy reduces deaths from colon cancer by more than half according to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine. This reduction comes from removing small growths called polyps during colonoscopy.
- The 5-year survival rate for early-stage colon cancers is close to 90%. For cancers found at advanced stages, when colon cancer has spread to other parts of the body, the survival drops down to around 12%. So early detection is undoubtedly better than having advanced cancer.
Over the next month, I’ll break down some more facts about colonoscopy, colon cancer, and how the foods we eat can affect our risk for colon cancer.
Until my next post, check out what the American Cancer Society has to say about colon cancer.
I am a physician and trained chef. I specialize in gastroenterology and nutrition. Currently I work as the Associate Director of Adult Nutrition at the University of Chicago.