By Michael Morton
“We need to do these things to make sure we have more people aware,” he said last Thursday, four days before he showed up for his own screening and received a clean bill of health. “My community's not been responsive enough in getting preventive medicine done. We're behind in almost every category.”
Comrie appeared at the hospital's Cancer Center with staff and representatives of the American Cancer Society to help kick off an effort during March to raise awareness about the need for colon screenings. The center brought in former Knicks players last month in a similar initiative for prostate cancer.
Statistically black people are more likely than whites to get colon, prostate and breast cancer, the center's staff said. And because many members of minority communities historically have not come in for screenings, when cancer is detected by doctors, it is often already in the late stages.
Colon cancer has a 90 percent survival rate if found early, said Dr. Jean-Bernard Poulard, the colorectal surgeon who screened Comrie. He said men and women should come in for screenings starting at age 50, or earlier if they have had inflammatory bowel disease or their family has a history of colon cancer or intestinal polyps, small growths which are often benign but may become malignant. Patients with such a background are considered to be at a higher risk.
There are two screening regimens that patients may be put through depending on their risk factor, Poulard said. For those at a low risk, doctors give a barium enema for x-raying and a stool test and check for blood in the rectum. If anything suspicious is found, doctors perform a colonoscopy, a procedure which utilizes a small device with a tiny video camera and that can look at the lining of the colon and remove polyps for a biopsy. For those at high risk, doctors go straight to the colonoscopy.
The night before either procedure is performed, patients must stop eating and swallow a liquid solution that cleanses their colon.
Poulard said the procedures have become safer and less unpleasant with technological advances. But he acknowledged that patients might still be reluctant to be screened.
“It's a little bit more embarrassing for the male population,” he said. “But when it's a life and death issue you have to publicize the benefits it provides.”
Though he is only 45 and has no family history of colon cancer, Comrie chose to get the colonoscopy so he could set an example.
“That's one of the reasons I want to do the procedure, so I can say that it's safe,” he told the audience at the center.
While the center, which opened in July 2002, is still too new to have collected data on how effective awareness campaigns have been, doctors said they are already seeing cancer patients coming in at earlier stages in their diseases.
“We know something is working,” said Dr. Margaret Kemeny, director of the center.
Concerns about money keep even more people from getting screened, Kemeny said. But the center will find a way to help them afford the visit, hospital administrators said, and even those without insurance will not be turned away. They encouraged the community to call the center at 718-883-HOPE or the ACS support line at 800-ACS-2345.
For his part, Comrie said he will help spread the word.
“I'll be going to churches and talking to people, which is part of what I do on a regular basis, to get people to get medical checkups.”
Reach reporter Michael Morton by e-mail at email@example.com or by calling 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.