March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month
SIKESTON -- Joe Hunter admits there were days when he didn't think he would be alive -- or at the very least take a morning jog like he was preparing to do Thursday.
"There's only one way out. We're all going to die. Everyone knows it, but when you're faced with imminent death, it certainly wakes you up," said Hunter of Sikeston.
Almost five years ago, Hunter was diagnosed with colon cancer. He wasn't even being tested for the cancer -- but another medical condition -- when doctors discovered Hunter was in the early stages of colon cancer.
"I had no symptoms," Hunter recalled. "If I would've waited until symptoms developed, I wouldn't be here now."
March marks the National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month when the American Cancer Society urges people to get tested regularly. Overall, colorectal, or colon, cancers are the third most common cancers in men and women, and the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States.
"When you first find out you have cancer, at least for me, you think it's a death sentence and that it's only a matter of time. You start wondering how much longer, but doctors can't really tell you. So you have to go from there," noted the 59-year-old.
A month after Hunter was diagnosed, he underwent surgery to remove the tumor. After the surgery, it was officially determined Hunter had cancer, and his oncologist recommended various options of treatment.
The three main types of treatment for colon cancer are surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Depending on the stage of the cancer, two or even three types of treatment may be used at the same time or one after the other.
After much research and a visit for a second opinion in Rochester, Minn., Hunter opted for chemotherapy. For nine months, Hunter endeared chemo once a week for six weeks followed by a week-long break.
"Chemotherapy alters smells and tastes," Hunter said. "My wife couldn't wear a certain perfume for a long time because I was so sensitive to its smell. Plus, chemo was very draining and tiring."
For 2003, an estimated 147,500 new cases will be diagnosed in the United States. An estimated 57,100 men and women will die of this disease in 2003, accounting for 10 percent of cancer deaths this year in the United States.
According to the ACS, a preventative strategy is to know your family history of illness. If colon cancer runs in your family, you may need to be tested earlier and more often than the recommended regular testing age of 50.
Testing can find precancerous polyps. Removing these polyps can prevent most colon cancers. Testing also can help detect colon cancer early, when the chances for successful treatment are greatest.
It's almost been four years since Hunter's last chemotherapy and his monthly follow-up exams have evolved into yearly follow-ups.
The five-year survival rate is 90 percent for people, like Hunter, whose colon cancer is found and treated at an early stage, before it has spread, but only 37 percent of colon cancers are found at that early stage. Once the cancer has spread to nearby organs or lymph nodes, the five-year survival rate goes down to 65 percent. For people whose colon cancer has spread to distant parts of the body, such as the liver or lungs, the five-year survival rate is 9 percent.
"I think it's hardest on the family," Hunter said about dealing with cancer. "They feel helpless and they have to change their lifestyle, too. It affected me because other people were affected."
Keeping a positive attitude is the best way to cope with illness, Hunter said. He said he was able to be positive, and he and his family were even able to laugh and joke about some of the uncomfortable tests he had to do.
Hunter said he has faced death before when he served in Vietnam, which is why he may have had a better outlook than most during his diagnosis.
"A positive attitude makes it more bearable for you and for your family," Hunter said. "You can worry and be sad and gripe -- or you can try to enjoy life as much as you can. I think that's what I did. I think we all should do that anyway."
For more information about cancer support services in your area, contact the American Cancer Society toll free at 1-800-ACS-2345, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.