OCEAN SPRINGS, MS (WLOX) - Colon cancer is the third leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S. and the second leading cause in Mississippi, but many of those deaths could be prevented through earlier screenings.
Colonoscopy screenings save lives by detecting and removing pre-cancerous growths known as polyps before they have a chance to turn into cancer. But they also help save patient’s lives who already have cancer by detecting the disease earlier.
Gastroenterologist Dr. John McKee diagnosed Ruben Harper with colorectal cancer two months ago. He had three cancerous lesions.
Ruben, 53, was experiencing unexplained abdominal pain. “I had some stomach pains, some cramping," he said.
He tried to shrug it off but his fiancée Betty Holmes, wouldn’t let him. She said he needed to have a colonoscopy. Ruben said his loved one’s influence had everything to do with him going to the Digestive Health Center in Ocean Springs.
“I wouldn’t have gone if not for her making me go and she’s been here for me,” said Ruben.
It turns out Betty was right to be worried.
That kind of early evaluation and diagnosis helps doctors detect disease as soon as possible.
“Our target is to find polyps before they’re cancer," said Dr. McKee with the Digestive Health Center. "Unfortunately, we found cancer during Ruben’s colonoscopy but found them early enough that he has great prospects for treatment.”
Dr. McKee says, fortunately, the colonoscopy detected the cancer before it had a chance to spread beyond the colon.
“Our treatments have advanced a lot so the prognosis is a whole lot better now than it has ever been,” he continued.
Like so many people, Ruben had put off getting screened despite the fact that he had a family history of the disease, and colon cancer is a greater risk for African Americans.
“They feel, if you can catch it in time they can defeat it so I tell everyone to get checked," Ruben said.
Obesity, poor diet, and lack of exercise are also risk factors for colon cancer. But Dr. McKee says the greatest risk factor is choosing not to get screened.
“So if you haven’t had a colonoscopy or some kind of stool test to look for cancer, that’s your number one risk factor, more than family history or anything else," said the doctor.
Ruben has started chemotherapy and radiation treatments and the next step will be surgery. He and Betty hope sharing their story will encourage others to get screened as early as possible.
“We pray a lot and believe God is gonna take care of this," said Betty. "And we hope this brings awareness for people to be to be tested early so they don’t have to go through this.”
The American Cancer Society recently changed its recommendations for colorectal cancer screening and are now recommending that adults with average risk undergo their first screening beginning at age 45 rather than 50. Those at higher risk should start even earlier.