Yvonne Edwards faced her fears, including anxiety about the unknown, and she’s likely alive today because of her strength. Now, she’s encouraging others to do the same.
Edwards is one of several people speaking out for a special Cancer Center Without Walls (CCWW) campaign.
The center, an outreach of the University of Virginia Cancer Center, works to address cancer throughout the commonwealth by partnering with community members to identify and meet needs. It strives to address disparities in cancer education and access to care.
Late last year, the CCWW’s about 30 Southwest Virginia advisory board members representing the Mount Rogers, LENOWISCO, and Cumberland Plateau health districts worked with researchers, oncologists and clinicians from UVA to determine four priority areas for cancer prevention and early detection that will each be the focus on separate campaigns.
The priorities are helping residents quit tobacco use, screenings for lung and colorectal cancer, along with efforts to prevent human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes several cancers.
Last month, the organization kicked off its work to raise awareness about colorectal cancer and urge area residents to get screened.
Colorectal cancer occurs in the colon or rectum. According to CCWW press release, “Abnormal growths or polyps can form in the colon or rectum and sometimes turn into cancer. Early screening helps find polyps for removal and cancer at early stages when treatment works best.
Edwards knows that reality firsthand. She witnessed both her father and grandfather struggle with colon cancer.
Her grandfather, she said, ultimately needed “surgery to remove a good portion of his colon.” However, that surgery allowed him to live many years longer – well into his 90s.
The same wasn’t true for her dad.
“He had waited too long to seek diagnosis and treatment. The cancer had already spread to other parts of his body,” she said.
In 2003, Edwards was 39 years old when she began experiencing symptoms that made her acknowledge her family history of colon cancer.
She asked her doctor for one of the at-home tests.
It came back indicating more testing was needed. She went in for a colonoscopy.
“I’m so very thankful I took charge of my own health because the examination resulted in the findings of a large 3.5 to 4 cm polyp that had to be removed. Had I not faced the fear of the unknown I’m sure I would have been finding myself in the same position as my father and grandfather found themselves in,” Edwards said. Today, she hopes “my story can convince someone else out there to take charge of their own health care by going for early detection CRC screening. It’s empowering to face your fears, once you set aside your pride than it is to put it off till you might be forced into dealing with something far worse than just a screening. If not for yourself, then at least for your loved ones.”
Betsy Grossman wholeheartedly agrees. She’s a 10-year cancer survivor. She’s also lost friends and family to cancer.
Her cancer was discovered through a colonoscopy and FIT test, which tests for hidden blood in the stool.
Grossman said both tests were uneventful. She reflected, “Any inconvenience far offsets the value of regular screening.”
She’s aware that the prep for a colonoscopy, which empties the bowels, has a stigma and that many people fear it and undergoing the screening. However, she said, “in the long run the colonoscopy provides a thorough exam and if polyps are found they can be removed during the screening.”
She did also note that more options for colorectal cancer screening exist today that individuals can complete at home and then take or mail back to a health care provider for testing.
“The most important thing,” Grossman said, “is to talk to your health care provider about what type of screening test is best for you and then go ahead get it done.”
Before retirement, Grossman served as the UVA Cancer Center’s outreach & engagement specialist and often took part in sharing information at health fairs and during programs on understanding cancer. She experienced the reward of people letting her know that they or a family member had been screened and all was well or they caught the cancer early. “The best screenings are the ones that take place,” she declared.
During the pandemic, many people have opted to delay colonoscopies. The Colorectal Cancer Alliance wants to see that trend reversed. It’s even more important in Southwest Virginia where the number of people in the screening age (50-75) is already lower than normal. In 2018, the percentage of Southwest Virginians being tested ranged from 30.19% to 58.91%, which lags significantly behind the statewide rate of 70.8%.
Brenna Robinson, who now holds the post of outreach & engagement specialist for the cancer center, noted that another colorectal cancer survivor put the importance of testing quite simply when she said, “I got to see my grandbaby.”
Throughout Southwest Virginia, Robinson said, eight advocates are working to share their stories to encourage screenings and awareness.
The cancer center is also working to develop toolkits for physician practices, free clinics and other health services to use to promote screenings. Robinson hopes those toolkits can be used long-term.
Robinson noted that she’s just reaching the age where screenings are recommended. She said most people who have taken the screenings multiple times tell her the prep is much easier these days and it’s worth it. However, she echoed Grossman, saying, “The best test is the one you and your doctor choose.”
Grossman also knows that reality firsthand. Her dad is a three-time cancer survivor. She recalls growing up learning the importance of tests and screening. She became so passionate about the concept that now it’s at the heart of her work.
Though March was Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, the center’s campaign didn’t end with the month.