March is Colorectal Awareness Month. Meet two local champions for the colorectal cause.
In May 2009, Vera Owens, an avid runner, went for a routine colonoscopy. “I was doing it every two years because my mother died at age 73 of colon cancer,” Owens shared. Her doctor informed her that she had a cyst on her colon, and that preliminary results indicated that it could be cancer. Owens immediately went for blood work and a week later returned to her doctor—who confirmed it was cancer. Owens recalls that she was in tears, and her doctor placed a hand on her shoulder and assured her that they were going to get through this. He referred her to a local colorectal surgeon—Dr. Janette Gaw.
“Everything went fast,” Owens says, recalling what happened after her cancer diagnosis.
Dr. Gaw—who is a runner and recognized Owens from local races—discussed the surgery options with Owens, and informed her that she would be in the hospital for about seven days. At the time, Owens was training for the 2010 Miami Marathon. They arranged to do the surgery as soon as possible, and everything went well. Her lymph nodes were clean, so she did not have to have chemotherapy. Two days after surgery, Owens was up and walking around the halls and asked if she could go home, and they released her. She credits her health and her running with how quickly she bounced back from surgery. Four weeks later, Vera checked in with Dr. Gaw and said, “I ran three miles this morning!” And just six months later, she did run in Miami, but opted to do the half marathon at her husband’s urging.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths among men and women. And yet, it’s not something a lot of people talk about— even among those that have been diagnosed. The best way to prevent colon cancer is to have a colonoscopy, a procedure that many people avoid. “People talk about eating more vegetables, fiber, and calcium. Honestly, the only way to prevent colon cancer is to get a colonoscopy,” shared Dr. Janette Gaw, MD, FACS, FASCRS. Board-certified colorectal surgeon. “Colon cancer mostly comes from polyps. If we do a colonoscopy and remove polyps, then the colon cancer is prevented from developing.”
Many people are uncomfortable discussing colorectal cancer, and initially, Owens was too. “At first when they told me, I was embarrassed,” Owens recalled. “My mother wouldn’t tell anyone about it, and I guess from her, I felt down and didn’t want people to know I had it.” Around February 2010, as Owens was out running, she felt like she was ready to talk about her experience—as if it was time for her to act. She approached Dr. Gaw and told her she wanted to do something. “They always have something for breast cancer,” Owens said. “There is nothing out there about colon cancer and it’s the second killer.” The two got together and worked with Get Your Rear In Gear to put on their first local 5k in March of 2011. After two years, they wanted more of the money to stay here locally, so they formed their own race and became the Scope for Hope 5k, working in conjunction with 21st Century C.A.R.E., a foundation for cancer assistance, research, and education. The money raised helps to cover the cost of colonoscopies for the uninsured and to also pay for groceries, gas, and lodging for those going through cancer treatment. So far, Scope for Hope 5k has raised close to $100,000—and most importantly, covered the costs of 120 colonoscopies.
“I’m very proud” Owens shared. “It’s not just our race. It’s everyone’s race that day. I feel so good about it because I feel like I’m helping someone…this is my purpose.” Owens has been cancer free for five years, and celebrated by going back to Miami and completing the marathon in February of 2014, finishing fourth in her age group.
Owens and Dr. Gaw are the co-chairs for this year’s Scope for Hope 5k, which will be held on March 29 at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers. The event offers a timed 5k run, a two-mile walk, and a kids fun run. Click here for more information and to register.