The Honorable Donald M. Payne,
Jr.: Colorectal Cancer Awareness Advocate
U.S. Representative, New Jersey's 10th Congressional District
Witnessing my father’s heartbreaking battle with colorectal cancer was one of the most difficult times in my life. On the other hand, it made me passionate about increasing awareness of the benefits of colorectal cancer screening, particularly in communities disproportionately affected by the disease. It also drove me to work toward the elimination of cancer health disparities and led me to be vigilant about my own cancer screening.
My father, the late Congressman Donald M. Payne, was a member of Congress for 23 years. He was very well educated, but neither he nor I realized the importance of colorectal cancer screening. As a result, he was not tested in time to prevent his cancer or even to detect it at an early stage, when it could have been more easily treated. He ultimately lost his battle with colorectal cancer in March 2012. I have often said that had he been screened earlier, he would still be with us today.
After my father’s diagnosis with colorectal cancer, I set out to educate myself about the disease. I learned that experts recommend that men and women at average risk for colorectal cancer begin screening for the disease at age 50. I also learned that colorectal cancer affects the African-American community more deeply than it does other communities and that some experts recommend African Americans start screening at age 45.
Given my father’s experience and what I had learned in my own research about colorectal cancer, I decided to have my first colonoscopy in December 2012, the day I turned 54. It was a good decision because the doctor found and removed 13 polyps, or precancerous growths, during the procedure. I was shocked to learn this, but I was glad to have caught the polyps before they became cancerous.
When I went back the following year for a second colonoscopy, the doctor found and removed another three polyps. Since then, I have had a colonoscopy every year on my birthday. I tell people it is my birthday present to myself because I know routine screenings are essential for maintaining my health.
As a result of my experiences, I am dedicated to spreading the word about how colorectal cancer screening saves lives. I speak to a lot of communities— at community health centers, on neighborhood corners, and at places of worship— about the fact that colorectal cancer is highly preventable, but you have to catch it early. I tell people about the need for testing, and I try to dispel the notion that the screening process is painful and extremely unpleasant. It’s a moment of discomfort, but it can save your life. By talking about colorectal cancer, I hope to remove the stigma that is attached to the disease and the screening tests.
During my work to raise awareness about colorectal cancer screening, I have come to realize that men oftentimes think they are invincible. However, we need to be more proactive about our health so that we can enjoy our later years and so that we can give ourselves and our families the security we deserve.
As co-chair of the Congressional Men’s Health Caucus, I have a great opportunity to raise awareness of the importance of preventive care among men and to help reduce health disparities across diseases, particularly those that touch so many lives, like cancer. Improving outcomes for communities disproportionately affected by cancer not only means spreading awareness about preventive care, but it also means educating people in these communities about the importance of participating in clinical trials.
Although clinical trials are at the heart of the process for bringing new medicines to patients, African Americans and other minorities remain significantly underrepresented in these trials. Encouraging minority participation in clinical research is important so that all communities, regardless of race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status benefit from promising new treatments.
My role as co-chair of the Congressional Men’s Health Caucus has also afforded me the chance to more effectively advocate for getting the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the funding they need to push forward research and screenings to save and improve more lives. As a lawmaker, I have the responsibility to make sure that people do not experience what my family went through. We must continue to educate people about the importance of funding for research and prevention in our fight against cancer.
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