March 03, 2022

When it comes to cancer, we must learn from our family history, take charge of our health, and get screened to live the lives we deserve

When I was born on the predominantly African American east side of the river in Waterloo, Iowa, and raised in the area, most of my family members did not live to see old age.

The health disparities that existed then and now in my community are painfully evident. I have lost too many people I love to very treatable cancers and preventable diseases. I was in second grade when my grandparents died in their 50s. My father was 57 when he died and my mother was in her 60s. Most of my uncles passed around the same age.

My loved ones did not get screened for cancer or have access to the preventive care that I do. And even though I’m now 55, and I should know better, I was on track to repeat my family’s health history. As a busy executive whose days are filled by the minute, I told myself that I couldn’t make the time for a colonoscopy. And as the years passed, I kept making excuses.

Last year, I became Chief Commercial Officer for Exact Sciences. During my first week with the company, I heard our CEO Kevin Conroy speak about the work we’re doing to catch cancer early and the difference that makes in treatment outcomes and quality of life. That’s when it hit me: there was no excuse for me to avoid taking charge of my own health. I had to get screened for colorectal cancer.

My three daughters are now young adults, and my youngest was just a newborn when my father passed away. He missed so much of their lives, and I did not want to make the same mistake. I want my daughters to see me as an old man with grandkids running around — I want to have the experiences I missed with my parents and grandparents.

I took my wife on this cancer screening journey with me — she is 54 and a busy physician who had also put off getting a colonoscopy. We both did a home screening with Cologuard®, a noninvasive stool test and it couldn’t have been easier. Cologuard comes with a returnable box that you leave on your doorstep for UPS to pick up.

Less than two weeks later, my wife and I were in our living room when we received our Cologuard results by email. My test came back negative. I breathed a sigh of relief and made plans to do another home screening in three years. But my wife’s test was positive. She quickly connected with her doctor to schedule a follow-up colonoscopy, a step she admitted she would have continued delaying if it were not for Cologuard. To say we are happy she did the Cologuard test is an understatement. During her follow-up colonoscopy, they discovered a pre-cancerous mass in my wife’s colon that had already grown to 4 centimeters in size. These pre-cancerous adenomas may become cancer over time and are surgically removed to prevent the disease from ever happening. I was a believer in Cologuard, now I am an evangelist.

 I’m sharing my family’s story because there are more than 44 million people who have not been screened for colorectal cancer. March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, so there is no better time to talk to your doctor about getting screened. But we know that having “your doctor” is not a given, especially in places like where I grew up. Most of my relatives don’t have a primary care physician — they call my wife when they feel sick. Doctors can be intimidating to Black people, so their “doctor” often ends up being the emergency room.

One of the positive trends to emerge from the pandemic is the growing acceptance and reach of telemedicine, which can make it easier for people to consult with a doctor and get access to potentially life-saving screenings. I have cousins in Waterloo who work hourly jobs and they can’t afford to take two days off for a colonoscopy, which is why we’re working to expand access to and awareness of Cologuard for more people.

Colorectal cancer does not have to be a death sentence — catching it in a pre-cancerous stage or at stage one is completely different than catching it stage four. You might feel healthy and look healthy, but that does not mean you can afford to put off screening. My wife runs every day and is healthier than she was when we met in college 37 years ago, and yet her test was positive and they found a precancerous lesion. You can take control by getting screened and you can do it from the convenience of your home.

There’s too much to miss out on.