Singer, actor, TV personality Harry Connick Jr. and his wife Jill Goodacre Connick will be in Austin Tuesday, but this time it won’t be for a movie premiere (he’s shot two here) and it won’t be to perform.
Instead, he’s talking about turning 50 and the importance of getting screened for colon cancer.
“Cancer’s been unfortunately a part of my life for as long as I can remember,” he says. His mom died of ovarian cancer when he was 13; his wife had breast cancer. “I’m just sick of cancer.”
Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States, but it’s also one of the most preventable if caught early.
In Texas, we’re not great about getting our screenings. Texas ranks 41st in the country for colon cancer screenings, says Dr. Jacqueline Champlain, a family practice physician at Austin Regional Clinic.
The Connicks have been touring the country talking about screenings as part of Cologuard, a noninvasive colon cancer screening test, and its New 50 campaign. Age 50 is when most people should first be screened for colon cancer, unless they have genetic risk factors such as a parent with early onset cancer; symptoms such as changes in the stool or weight loss; or an underlying disease such as Crohn’s or colitis or irritable bowel syndrome.
On Tuesday, Connick will be at the Bullock Museum and talk about getting screened himself, using Cologuard. It was simple, he says, and took about a minute. Yet, he knows it’s not something people want to talk about. We’re trying to demystify the process of screening, he says.
“Fortunately, my results are negative,” he says, but he knows what it was like when his wife was first diagnosed with breast cancer. “It was a nightmare,” he says. “It’s terrifying. ”
Her cancer was caught by a routine screening, in her case a sonogram, instead of a mammogram.
A colonoscopy is considered the gold standard of colon cancer screening, Champlain says. A colonoscopy is like what a dermatologist does for a skin check, Champlain says, except it’s inside the colon. Think of it as a doctor looking for a suspicious mole, but in this case a polyp inside the colon. During a colonoscopy, the doctor can then do a biopsy of a polyp and even remove it.
Colonoscopy often it isn’t convenient to patients, Champlain says. Many people don’t have the time to do the prep work associated with a colonoscopy, she says. Often prep includes a day of drinking some medicine that will have you needing to be near a toilet to clean out the colon. Then it’s a day for the colonoscopy. Sometimes you have to have an appointment with the specialists who will be doing the colonoscopy after getting the referral from your doctor, though she tries to have her nurses smooth out that process.
Also, there’s the cost. Cologuard costs about $200 out-of-pocket if insurance won’t cover it, but Champlain says she has seen really good results in getting insurance to cover it. A colonoscopy can be thousands of dollars if you have a high-deductible insurance plan.
The Cologuard kit gets ordered by the doctor, then a patient takes it home. The kit comes with easy-to-read instructions, a bowl that you put into the toilet to capture your stool, a swab to collect a sample of the stool and then a package to mail in the sample.
With Cologuard, it’s looking for signals of cancer that the colon is giving off, Champlain says. She thinks of it like the colon sending out a wireless signal that Cologuard picks up like your cellphone picks up the wireless transmissions.
If Cologuard comes back positive, then a follow-up colonoscopy is done to see what is going on. She has not had anyone come back with a false positive, she says, and has patients right now that are being treated for colon cancer because of Cologuard.
“We need folks to get this done,” she says, because in addition to colon cancer being the second-deadliest cancer, the majority of people have no symptoms.
Yet, like skin cancer, if caught early, it is easily treatable by removing the cancer. If caught later, like skin cancer, it is not.
Cologuard screenings need to be done every three to five years, Champlain says. Colonoscopies need to be done every five to 10 years until age 75, but it also depends on what the initial colonoscopy finds and family history.
The Connicks will be issuing a #ScreenWithMe challenge on Tuesday. People 50 years old or older can pledge to get screened, then invite three of their friends to get screened. For every pledge, Exact Sciences, which makes Cologuard, will donate $1 to cancer research and advocacy. You can learn about the challenge at New50.com/Austin.
Connick says since turning 50 in September, “I physically never felt better,” he says. “I feel strong. Fifty is different than it used to be.”
It’s definitely different than what he thought 50 would feel like when he was young, he says.
He’s recently workshopped a new musical based on the movie “The Sting,” will be going on tour this summer and thinks a studio album won’t be far off.
Champlain also reminds that in addition to a screening for colon cancer, women need mammograms beginning at age 40 and pap smears beginning at age 21; men need prostate cancer screenings at 50. Beginning at age 25, your doctor should also do a blood panel to look for things like cholesterol and diabetes. Everyone should be getting their blood pressure and weight checked at each visit. Champlain says she screens for depression and domestic violence at each well visit as well.
Champlain thinks of these screenings as “low hanging fruits” with high rewards, minimal risks. “It’s like getting in our car and putting on your seat belt. Why wouldn’t you do that?”
The New 50: An Evening with Harry Connick Jr. and Jill Connick
When: 6-8 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Texas Spirit Theatre at the Bob Bullock Musuem, 1800 Congress Ave.
Cost: Free, but you must register at New50.com/Austin