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‘Remember, it’s important to check your poop’

MINNEAPOLIS – Like many proud parents, Pam Olson of Woodbury, Minn., had a good cry watching her daughter Bridget graduate from college recently.

Unlike many parents, however, her tears carried added weight. She once doubted she’d see this happy day.

At 39, Olson was found to have colon cancer. Within weeks, she’d had surgery to remove part of her colon and had begun six months of chemotherapy.

“You just sort of think, ‘What am I going to miss?’ ” said Olson, now 52 and office coordinator at Bailey Elementary School in Woodbury. Her two daughters were in grade school at the time.

“You sort of start planning, right? Like you’re not going to be around.”

Today, Olson is cancer-free and about to celebrate her 25th wedding anniversary with husband Dave. She’s also free of filters when talking about the disease we don’t want to talk about.

“Just remember, it’s important to check your poop,” she said.

Getting a colonoscopy (an exam to find abnormalities in the colon) remains her “least favorite thing to do, but it’s not as bad as people make it out to be.”

Olson’s message to look down, if you will, carries great urgency, coming on the heels of news from the American Cancer Society. A couple of weeks ago, the organization changed its guidelines to recommend that colorectal cancer screening begin at age 45 for people at average risk, instead of 50.

Those with a family history were told to be screened even earlier.

While 90 percent of colorectal cases still are found in people over 50 – which is the reason colonoscopies previously were recommended to begin then – studies show a 50 percent rise in colorectal rates among adults under 50 from 1994 to 2014. More alarming, colorectal cancers are being found in people as young as their 20s and 30s. This is no longer an “older person’s” disease.

While colon cancer remains the second-leading cause of cancer deaths among U.S. adults, stakeholders know that getting people to take heed is a tough sell. People are embarrassed to discuss their bowel habits, said Matt Flory, Minnesota health systems manager for the American Cancer Society.

“With breast cancer, there’s not so much stigma,” he said. “Colon cancer has an extra level of discomfort.”

Tim Church agreed. “People just think it’s an icky topic,” said Church, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Public Health School. Only two-thirds of people 50 and older get a colonoscopy, he said, despite aggressive outreach by doctors hoping for an 80 percent participation rate by the end of 2018.

People, it seems, would rather have oral surgery than undergo the “prep” required to clean out their systems. Or they don’t want co-workers to know why they took a day off. Or they’re afraid of what might be found during the procedure.

As the daughter of a mother who is a 22-year colon cancer survivor, and hence considered higher risk myself, let me tackle those worries for you:

• The prep for a colonoscopy is unpleasant but tolerable, and it’s getting easier every year. Plus, you typically have to do it only once every 10 years.

• Your co-workers should be getting a colonoscopy, too, so make it a work outing.

• The comforting thing about the screening is that if polyps are found, they can be removed during the procedure, which prevents up to 90 percent of colorectal cancer.

In other words, stop stalling. If your health insurance covers colonoscopy, be grateful and see your doctor. If you don’t have coverage, talk to your doctor about other screening options, such as flexible sigmoidoscopy, virtual colonoscopy and stool-based tests. (All three, however, do require a traditional colonoscopy if abnormal results are seen.)