When Harry Connick Jr. took to a Colorado stage recently, he wasn’t accompanied by an orchestra, but by his wife, Jill Goodacre Connick.
The Grammy- and Emmy Award-winning singer and actor was in Denver not to sing but to share a message about the importantance of cancer screening. He turned 50 earlier this year, the age at which colon cancer testing is recommended. And like many people, Connick didn’t want to have a colonoscopy. He dreaded the discomfort of the preparation, the invasiveness of the procedure, the chance of having his colon perforated and the time out of his schedule it would require.
But he changed his mind when he found out he had another, less invasive, option. He had been approached to be the spokesperson for a public awareness campaign, theNew50.com, for a company called Cologuard that offers an at-home colon screening test for people who are age 50-plus and have an average risk of developing the disease.
“I did my due diligence and learned as much as I could about it,” the singer said during an interview at a Denver hotel prior to the program where he talked about cancer screening. “I was blown away that this non-invasive screening test was on par with colonoscopy and I was a perfect candidate for it. I talked with my health care provider and got a prescription for it.”
The process was so simple, he said, “I actually thought I was doing something wrong.”
When the test is ordered, a box is delivered to the patient’s home. The patient provides a stool sample and mails it back to Cologuard, where it is tested. Within two weeks, results are provided to the person’s doctor, who then notifies the patient. The test costs $649 and is covered by many insurance plans, including Medicare.
“When you compare it to colonoscopy, it is so easy to do,” Connick said. “And I thought it was really important to tell people about it, because colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death among men and women. It is the most preventable and least prevented (cancer). So I thought that maybe I could do something in a small way to try to inform people about it.”
There are some Colorado-specific numbers to think about as well. One in three adults age 50 and older in Denver aren’t getting screened as recommended, according to the Colorado Health and Environmental Data. And there will be an estimated 1,850 new cases of colon cancer in Colorado this year. Nationally, according to the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancer will be the cause of about 50,630 deaths during 2018.
Connick has additional reasons to promote cancer screening. His wife Jill was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012, and he lost his mother to ovarian cancer when he was just 13 years old.
Because Jill’s cancer was detected early through a routine mammogram and follow-up sonogram because of her dense breast tissue, the couple is celebrating the five-year mark of her remission.
“Jill is a couple years older than me and she used to tease me a lot,” Connick says. “She’s really into early detection and early screening, but I was scared of it, even though I had had so many close calls with cancer in my family.”
Cancer is not always an easy thing to talk about, but Connick said, “I have found myself in a half-dozen or more real conversations with people about it,” including band members and entertainment people with whom he works.
“Let’s take the bull by the horns and demystify it,” he said about colon cancer. “How do we eradicate this and what are my options? I find people are really into in it.”
The Connicks are visiting six cities to share their message, including Harry’s home town of New Orleans. As part of The New 50 campaign, the couple is promoting the #ScreenWithMe Challenge, which invites people age 50 and older to get screened and encourage three other people to do the same. The program will generate a $1 donation per pledge to support colon cancer research and advocacy undertaken by campaign partners Fight Colorectal Cancer, Colorectal Cancer Alliance and the Vince Lombardi Cancer Foundation.
Connick said it has been rewarding—and not just financially—to promote Cologuard. “My position in entertainment is usually distant because I’m on stage or on a television screen.
When you put people in a room and I’m on a stage and music has nothing to do with it and we’re talking about love and life and family and the things that are really important like health, it’s amazing what an equalizer that is. What an incredible blessing to see other people like me and Jill, looking for the best way of life they can find.”
He knows the devastating affect cancer can have on a family. “My mother’s death informs everything, the conscious and I’m sure, unconscious, decisions that I have made,” he said.
“When the female in your life that you idolize, that is your hero and your best friend gets diagnosed with cancer— just as the last great hero you had was—man, that is just terrifying. We told our children about it and each of them processed it differently. And then we just got through it.”
Connick said that turning 50 wasn’t a big deal for him. “I guess maybe 50 is different now than it used to be. We have so much more information now about our health and the ways we can take care of ourselves.”
For information about colorectal cancer statistics, screening, symptoms and treatment, visit Colorectal Cancer Alliance, ccalliance.org. The site also features resources for patients, family members and caregivers.
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Suzanne S. Brown, the former senior editor for features at The Denver Post, is a contributing editor to Colorado Expression.
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