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Campaign seeks to raise awareness among blacks about colorectal cancer

March 21, 2007 by  
Filed under Health

Athletic and young, Eric Nowden was surprised when doctors in Arizona diagnosed his stomach symptoms as inflammatory bowel disease in 2000.

But after continuing to lose weight over the course of a few months and often feeling full before finishing a meal, Nowden decided to move back to St. Louis and have doctors here run a few tests.

That’s when a colonoscopy showed that he had colon cancer. He was just 30 years old.

“I cried,” Nowden recalled. “I really did, I cried.” Advertisement

Nowden doesn’t have a family history of the disease, but he is African-American. According to the American Cancer Society, black men and women are diagnosed with and die from colon cancer at higher rates than any other racial or ethnic group in this country.

“There are several reasons for that,” explained Dr. James Fleshman, chief of colorectal surgery at Siteman Cancer Center. “One is that they come to us at a later stage.”

Fleshman says African-Americans may be less likely to recognize they are at higher risk and may also have a genetic predisposition to colon cancer.

“If you have one first-degree family member, that puts you at twice the risk,” Fleshman said. “If you have two family members, that’s six times the risk, and it just keeps going.”

Screening recommendations from most major cancer advocacy groups call for a rectal exam and a test for hidden blood in the stool at age 40. A colonoscopy to look for polyps, early warning signs that a tumor may be forming, is recommended at age 50.

Anyone with a family member diagnosed with polyps or colon cancer should get a colonoscopy at 10 years younger than the age of their relative when that person was diagnosed with a polyp or colon cancer.

Getting this important information to African-Americans is one of the goals of the Speak Up About Colon Cancer campaign, a joint effort of Ethicon Endo-Surgery Inc., the Siteman Cancer Center and Washington University School of Medicine. Doctors and other health care professionals, including Fleshman, go where African-Americans gather, and spread the word about the importance of colon cancer screening and detection.

“They take the recommendations and make them public within the churches and schools and community groups so that everyone’s aware of those,” Fleshman said.

He also spreads the word about improvements in the treatment of colon and rectal cancer.

“It’s not something to be so afraid of, as it used to be,” Fleshman said. “No one gets a bag anymore because they have colon cancer. You get an operation, we take care of it, and you go on your way.”

Nowden’s cancer came back in 2002, and he underwent surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. But today, at 37, he is cancer-free and spreading the word about the importance of early detection.

“My message to everyone in the black community is to get screened and checked,” Nowden said. “Consult with your doctors.”

More than 150,000 people in this country will be diagnosed with colon cancer this year. More than 55,000 will die of it.

March is national Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. To learn more, visit the American Cancer Society website at

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