When Craig Melvin’s half-brother Lawrence was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 39, it was a wake-up call.
“We always thought colon cancer is a disease for the elderly, like Alzheimer’s and prostate cancer. We were also totally unaware of the family history. Part of the diagnosis required the doctor asking some questions. My brother called my dad and we came to find out that our late grandmother at some point had colon cancer.”
Getting checked out
Even though he was just 37 at the time, Melvin promptly underwent a colonoscopy. The report was good, but Melvin knew he’d need to stay diligent about getting tested.
“Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in Black men and women, but a lot of folks don’t realize that if it’s caught early, its completely treatable.”
The new guideline for screening is age 45, but Melvin cautions if you have a family history, it’s wise to get screenings earlier than that.
A delayed diagnosis
Melvin said his brother was having pain in his abdomen that persisted, but his physician assumed it was stress related. He was later told to add fiber to his diet. On his third visit, tests were finally performed.
“They found he had a tumor the size of a small orange in his abdomen,” explained Melvin. “It was stage 4 cancer.”
It’s unclear if acting sooner would have changed the prognosis but getting a second opinion proved wise.
“The first doctor wanted to put him in hospice immediately. They basically threw up their hands.”
At MD Anderson Cancer Center, one of the foremost experts in the field was honest about the diagnosis and treatment options, helping his patient move forward.
Ignorance isn’t bliss
Melvin, who works with the non-profit Colorectal Cancer Alliance, said a lot of men feel if they don’t know something’s wrong, then it can’t be.
“There’s also typical machismo, like with my brother. Here’s a guy who played college football, who didn’t smoke or drink, a Baptist minister who lived a clean life. To all of a sudden be struck with late-stage colon cancer — we didn’t think he was the kind of person who got colon cancer.”
Melvin realizes the topic isn’t a common or easy conversation.
“Especially in Black families. There’s also this stigma that’s associated with colorectal cancer. No one wants to talk about their colon or changes in their stool, and understandably so.”
As for his brother, “It hasn’t been an easy journey. He’s lost a lot of weight and isn’t as strong as he was, but he’s still kicking.”