Everyone has their guilty pleasure. Mine is People Magazine. I love it. I look forward to it every week. At our house we fight over who gets to read it first. I know that I should spend my limited reading time perusing something more weighty that advances my career-related knowledge, like the New England Journal of Medicine or Health Affairs. But given the choice, I pick People every time. I mean seriously, how can I function if I don’t know who is dating Jessica Simpson or which child star is in jail for shoplifting? Sean Penn punched a photographer? Ooh, tell me more!
So imagine my surprise when I picked up last week’s People magazine and my two worlds collided. Rather than the fluff I look forward to (Britney not caring for her kids? No!), two of the three cover stories were focused on celebrities facing cancer. Healthcare: you can’t escape it.
Michael Douglas has it pretty bad, suffering from a tumor at the base of his tongue. He is undergoing chemo and radiation. People do survive this, but it’s a long haul. One of the things he says in the story is that he knows his smoking and drinking were likely contributors to the disease. It is certainly possible that there are other causes, but Douglas has lived a bit fast it seems and may be, to some degree, suffering some of the consequences.
In stark contrast, Mehmet Oz, a cardiac surgeon who has been anointed as the virtual czar of healthy living–at least by Oprah and his legions of tv viewers–found out that he had an adenomatous polyp, the type of growth that develops into colon cancer. Dr. Oz is a pillar of health; he eats healthy foods, exercises, doesn’t drink, never smoked. Apparently there is no colon cancer in his family history. If anyone should live to 100, it’s this guy. Dr. Oz is nauseatingly healthy. And yet, cancer seems to have a very sick sense of humor.
Dr. Oz’s polyps were found as the result of a routine colonoscopy. He has had them removed and now has to be followed closely to ensure that they are rapidly addressed if they recur. What was notable to me about the story was his frank discussion of how close he came to not taking this screening test. He viewed himself as healthy and without any meaningful risk factors. He fancied himself too busy to take the day out for the test, but was overcome by the fear that he would be viewed as a hypocrite if he did a show encouraging people to make colonoscopy a routine part of their over-50 healthcare regime and he, himself, had balked. Oz states, “If I didn’t feel a public obligation to get scoped, I would have put it off. My life was saved.”
So what’s the lesson? No matter what you do, how you treat your body, and what your family history, you just have to get those cancer screening tests. Yeah, mammograms are a nightmare and make your boobs look like pancakes, but it beats dying. Having a metal instrument inserted where the sun don’t shine may gross you out, but I’m guessing that someone with terminal colon cancer would look back from the brink of death and say, “maybe I should have had the colonoscopy.” By the way, if you’ve never read Dave Barry’s story about having a colonoscopy, you should. It’s poignant and hilarious and can be found here.
We are lucky to have the array of screening and diagnostic tests that we have at our disposal in the U.S. We are even luckier that cancer treatment has come so far and that the survival rate has increased every year since 1990 for virtually every type of cancer. A key reason for this is the advent of early screening technologies which have become widely available and which are now, by law, reimbursed by insurance without cost to the patient in the average plan.
So I beseech you: please return my People magazine to its rightful state of meaningless gossipy crap (Brad and Angelina breaking up? Not again!) by doing your part to encourage everyone you know to get the proper cancer screenings. And learn from Dr. Oz: listen to your guilt and get those tests yourself when they are recommended by your doctor or the American Cancer Society (click on that link to see the ACS screening guidelines).