Bee Gees singer Robin Gibb, 62, died on Sunday after a harrowing battle with colon cancer that spread to his liver – despite aggressive chemotherapy and two emergency operations. What makes the six-time Grammy winner’s death especially tragic is that colon cancer is largely preventable with regular screening.
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African American men have less than a 5-year survival rate for colon cancer, as compared to non-Hispanic white men, and should therefore be screened for the disease at 40. It’s the only form of cancer that can be both detected AND treated with a single screening test.
A Silent Killer
Also known as colorectal cancer, colon cancer typically doesn’t have any early warning signs. As happened with Gibb, many patients aren’t diagnosed until the disease spreads to other organs (in his case, the disease had spread to the liver, indicating stage 4 of the disease, which is often rapidly fatal even with aggressive treatment).
Colon cancer affects the large intestines (colon) and can extend to the last few inches called the rectum (anal cancer, the condition that killed Farrah Fawcett). The disease develops slowly, with more than 95 percent of cases starting as polyps, some of which (adenomas) can become cancerous if they aren’t found and removed. Typically it can take 10 years or longer for these polyps to morph into cancer.
Preventable but Neglected
This year, about 103,000 Americans will be diagnosed with colon cancer. Ranked as the second leading cause of cancer death, it’s expected to kill more than 50,000 American men and women this year. Yet most of these deaths are preventable with a simple test, according to the American Cancer Society.
The problem is that fewer than half of the Americans who need screening—those aged 50 or older—get the recommended tests, such as a colonoscopy. One study found that a key factor is that doctors neglect to recommend the lifesaving exam, while patients’ embarrassment, anxiety, or lack of health insurance can also be issues.