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Aaron Byzak with grandma Hazel Mensching, left, and mom Cassandra Byzak. Courtesy photo
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Colorectal cancer awareness, screening saves lives

On March 19, it will be sixteen years since my mother lost her seven-and-a-half-year battle with colorectal cancer. She was 55 years old.

Each year at this time our family celebrates her life and acknowledges the importance of taking measures to prevent a repeat of what has, to our knowledge, taken the lives of more than a half dozen of my family members: Colorectal cancer.

As a matter of fact, March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. According to the American Cancer Society’s estimates, there will be 104,270 new cases of colon cancer and 45,230 new cases of rectal cancer diagnosed in 2021.

Even though rates of new colorectal cancer diagnosis have been dropping for decades, mainly because more people are getting screened and taking better care of themselves, these numbers are still staggering.

That’s nearly 150,000 people whose lives will be turned upside down this year due to colorectal cancer.

Looking back at my mother’s experience, her diagnosis shouldn’t have come as a surprise. She had been symptomatic for some time: weakness and fatigue, a marked change in bowel habits and bleeding. Add to the mix that for years she had only limited access to healthcare services because we lived in poverty.

When diagnosed, she was already in stage IV, the most advanced stage of colorectal cancer. She was handed a bleak prognosis of only 4 to 6 months to live. It was recommended that she get her affairs in order. However, after just a short discussion, she decided to fight and began a marathon on surgical interventions, chemotherapy and radiation treatments that lasted the better part of a decade.

Aaron J. Byzak

Her treatment regimen changed frequently as cancer spread to her liver, lungs, bone and ovaries.

She eventually turned to clinical trials looking for hope—some of the medications worked for a time, others not so much. It was a very challenging period for our family but one that proved to me and my siblings just how strong mom could be when the deck was stacked against her. Unfortunately, the cancer was just too much and she eventually succumbed to the disease.

Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, and now more than two decades of experience working in healthcare at a variety of levels, I can’t help but recognize the potential of what could have been had she been more aware of the symptoms and had access to screening services. Things might have turned out differently. She might have been here to see her now five grandchildren grow up. If only.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), if you are between the ages of 50 and 75, you should be screened for colorectal cancer. If you are like me and my siblings and have family members who were taken by the disease, you start even earlier. I was screened the first time at age 35.

At Tri-City Medical Center we partner with a wide array of non-profit organizations, including the American Cancer Society, through our COASTAL Commitment initiative to improve community education and access to cancer screening and care. Additionally, our cancer care services are excellent and available to our community.

This month please take the time to familiarize yourself with the screening recommendations. Know the symptoms. Get screened if you have concerns or fall into a high-risk category.

With your help, we can continue the downward trend of new cases, save lives and reduce the suffering caused by colorectal cancer.

Aaron Byzak serves as Chief External Affairs Officer for Tri-City Medical Center in Oceanside.

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