Colorectal Cancer Awareness

Why Colorectal Cancer Awareness Is Important 
Wendi Hawkins, Cornell employee, shares her story

Colorectal cancer awareness and screening are topics I’ve developed a passion for. It was an issue that I didn’t know much about until it entered my family’s life in December of 2017.  At that time my husband, Todd, was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer after several months of unexplained weight loss and a change to his daily bowel habits led him to visit his doctor. He was 5 months shy of his 50th birthday, the recommended age to begin colon cancer screening at that time. 

Over the next 16 months he would fight. Hard. He went through 22 rounds of chemotherapy, 5 biliary stent procedures, 4 hospitalizations coupled with 6 straight weeks of daily antibiotic infusions, and 5 trips to New York City for medical consults. He fought with dignity and grace, managing to remain positive and full of gratitude until he took his last breath in the early morning hours of April 24, 2019, surrounded by those he loved. 

By all accounts, this should not have happened to Todd at his age.   But sadly, the occurrence of young-onset (below the age of 50) colorectal cancer is on the rise. Today, colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer-related death in both men and women, and disproportionately impacts communities of color. It is estimated that in 2021, more than 150,000 people will be diagnosed, and more than 50,000 people will die from this disease.

What makes these facts all the more frustrating is that colorectal cancer is beatable in as much as 90% of cases when detected early. The most common diagnostic tool, the colonoscopy, can actually PREVENT the development of cancer by removing pre-cancerous polyps. Tragically, routine colorectal cancer screenings have declined significantly during COVID, so I am very grateful to the Cornell Wellness team for promoting these colorectal cancer screening resources.

Todd was very open about his cancer journey. Throughout, several people told him that they had talked to their doctors and sought screening after hearing of his circumstances, and he was truly moved by these stories. Because of this, one of the ways my daughters and I honor his memory is to tell his story, with the hope that it will inspire others to learn more, listen to your body, and seek screening.

-----------------------------------------

Scar Stories: The Toll of Colon Cancer 
By Ibram X. Kendi and Mik Awake

When Chadwick Boseman died from colon cancer, Ibram X. Kendi, one of the country's most renowned historians of racism, felt moved to speak up about his own fight against a disease that disproportionately afflicts Black men. He decided to reveal the scars from his own surgery—to wear them as visible signs of triumph over adversity. Access the full article that includes six other patients and survivors.

Ibram X. Kendi
Age: 38
Diagnosis: stage IV colon cancer
Current status: cancer-free
Kendi wants to highlight the rate at which colorectal cancer afflicts African American patients, who are 40 percent more likely to die of the disease than those of other races.

My body sent me warnings throughout the fall of 2017. But I ignored them—the weight loss, the fatigue, the constant trips to the bathroom only for nothing to happen. As the symptoms got worse, so did my denial. When I started passing blood clots into the toilet after Thanksgiving, I somehow convinced myself it wasn’t anything serious. I was traveling the country giving lectures on racism and antiracism, and for a while, my intense schedule allowed me to hide what was happening. But my partner, Sadiqa, is a physician, with a keen eye for failing health. When she noticed the extent of my symptoms during a post-Christmas vacation, she scheduled a doctor’s appointment for as soon as we were home. And let’s just say it would have ended our marriage if I had not gone.

In January I went in for a colonoscopy and body scans. I found out the worst: I had colon cancer. Stage IV. According to the American Cancer Society, only 14 percent of people receiving that diagnosis are likely to be alive five years later. I was 35 years old.

In two respects, my diagnosis fit larger patterns. Colon cancer is increasingly afflicting young people, with millennials twice as likely to develop the disease as those born in 1950. And African Americans are now 40 percent more likely to die from the disease than other racial groups. There are many possible causes for that disparity, chief among them that African Americans tend to have lower incomes, live in more polluted neighborhoods, and have less access to preventative care, early detection, and high-quality treatment than White Americans.

Many people diagnosed with cancer ask themselves, “Why me?” I asked another question: “Why did I do this to myself?” I felt, in those days, a kind of angelic glow radiating from Sadiqa, who had likely saved my life. At the same time, I started to resent myself for ignoring the disease’s early warning signs, which likely allowed the cancer to spread out of my colon. I raged at myself for acting like I was immortal, for letting my veganism and regular exercise mask the fact that I had never really taken my health—or my life—very seriously.

When I started chemotherapy, at the end of January in 2018, I wasn’t yet conscious of all this self-loathing. But looking back now, I suspect this might be why I kept the ordeal to myself. I was fighting for my life, but I did not share that fact publicly, and I didn’t so much as whimper to my caretakers. As I proceeded through the cycles of chemo, the side effects compounded: the fatigue, the nausea, the toxicity on my tongue, the darkening and drying and blistering of the palms of my hands and soles of my feet. And all the neuropathy in the dead of winter: the pain of breathing in cold air, swallowing cold liquids, or touching anything cold. But I refused to let my oncologist reduce the dosage. I wanted, if anything, more chemo, more pain. But Sadiqa vetoed my requests.

I think my insistence on enduring the increasing pain had something to do with what I perceived as manly strength. And with my inclination to push through adversity for a greater good. My work is rooted in struggle. I combat the societal adversity that is racism—and personal adversity of being framed as the problem for fighting racism. Fighting cancer, it seemed, would be like fighting racism; the healing would require pain.

But there was more to my cancer battle. I realize now that I was also seeking punishment. I had deluded myself when the warning sirens were wailing. No more. It was time for me to suffer for allowing my body to suffer.

And then, after six months of effective chemotherapy, I looked forward to surgery. Not just because the procedure could rid my body of the remaining cancer. I also wanted the scars from the surgery—unmistakable, ugly, unchangeable—all over my chest. If it all sounds hyperbolic, then it’s because my self-loathing was hyperbolic. I wanted the surgical scars to function as humiliating symbols of my punishment. They would be my own personal scarlet letters. I would hide them from the world, but I would never be able to hide them from myself, these permanent reminders of my folly.

Over time, though, I reflected on the absurdity of blaming myself. After all, it wasn’t as though I had the typical risk factors for colon cancer. I was not over 50, I had no history of polyps or colorectal cancer, had no inflammatory intestinal conditions, no family history of colon cancer, did not eat a low-fiber, high-fat diet, was not sedentary, did not have diabetes, was not obese, did not smoke, did not drink heavily, had not had radiation therapy. My only risk factor for colon cancer was being African American.

The problem was not my ignorance. Americans are systematically made ignorant about cancer through systemic neglect. We should have a well-funded public health system—and an informative media culture—that methodically instructs us on the symptoms for different types of cancers in the way we are being instructed now on the symptoms for COVID-19. After all, cancer is the second leading cause of death after heart disease in the United States. More people died from cancer in 2020 than COVID-19.

How do we ensure that every single middle-aged man and woman knows the symptoms for colon cancer? A persistent change in bowel habits, an inability to empty your bowels, rectal bleeding, persistent abdominal discomfort, fatigue, unexplained weight loss. And after the pandemic ends, how can disease remain on our radar as the greatest threat to our national health and security? Diseases like cancer—along with unintentional injuries and suicides—comprise the leading causes of death in the United States. Not homicides and armed robberies. Not attacks from foreign or domestic terrorists.

As I processed what had happened to my body, I began to forgive myself. And as my scars healed, I started looking at them differently. I stopped seeing them as the tracks of my shame. I stopped insisting on covering them up.

But it took some time. We’re taught, particularly as men, to hide our emotions, our fears, our inner thoughts. We’re effectively taught to hide our scars. We’re taught that this hiding is masculine, when, in fact, it’s easy to hide. Cowardice hides. What takes courage is to be vulnerable, to bare our scars to the world.

I think about Sadiqa, who went under the knife to have her breast cancer removed in 2014. And about her Aunt Delores, who once, when Sadiqa was a little girl, showed her niece the scars on her own chest. “You don’t have to be afraid of them,” she said. Aunt Delores would eventually die of breast cancer, but the memory of those healing words would always offer solace to Sadiqa.

What courageous women. But what about men? We have scars too. There are countless men walking around with surgical scars like mine, ashamed of them as I was, hiding them as I was, willing to reveal them—as I was not.

Perhaps Chadwick Boseman’s heartrending death from colon cancer on August 28, 2020—exactly two years after my surgery—pushed me over the edge. Soon, my survivor’s guilt evolved into a survivor’s courage and a willingness to be vulnerable.

I decided to publicly reveal my scars. Other men, I soon realized, were ready and willing to do the same. Alongside these six patients and survivors—men who have undergone treatment at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Boston Medical Center—I’m telling my story not only to raise awareness for colon cancer, but also to encourage other men to amass the courage to fight on, to end any self-loathing, to be vulnerable. We should see our scars as monuments to our cancer fights, as the most memorable tattoos on our bodies, as second birth marks. And we should never hide them.

We remain when, heartbreakingly, so many do not. We remain to tell their stories and our own stories through our scars. I love that Sadiqa and my four-year-old daughter, Imani, can see my scars. Because that means I’m alive to see them, too.

Ibram X. Kendi is the director of Boston University's Center for Antiracist Research and the best-selling author of ‘How to Be an Antiracist.’
 

Quick Links to Resources:

In this section