Teaching Our Children About Colorectal Cancer

December 11, 2018 by Jennifer Butler
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Meg Padley and family

Rates of colorectal cancer have been on the rise for every generation born since 1950 – even affecting young people in their 30s, 20s and teens. While experts are still not sure why early-age onset colorectal cancer (diagnosed in those under age 50) is increasing so rapidly, organizations like the Colon Cancer Foundation are working furiously to both fund research and help raise awareness of this dangerous, but often preventable and beatable, disease.

Knowledge of family history plays a critical role in the prevention and treatment of colorectal cancer, as screenings for the disease are recommended to start earlier in those with a family connection to it. But colorectal cancer does not discriminate. Many who are diagnosed have no genetic predisposition to the disease.

Patients with early-age onset colorectal cancer are presented with a myriad of challenges. For those who are parents of young children, one of the most heart-wrenching challenges is communicating with their children about the disease.

Meg Padley, a paralegal and mom of 11-year-old twins from Westchester County, New York, was diagnosed with stage 2a colorectal cancer at the age of 46. Meg had no family history of colorectal cancer; and, in fact, no family history of any cancer in anyone under the age of 77. So, her diagnosis came as a grave shock. When asked how she told her children about her diagnosis, Meg replied: “Gradually. My twins were 8 when I was diagnosed. I needed to manage the information I was giving them carefully because I didn’t want to scare them. But It was important to me that I not hide or pretend I wasn’t sick from the beginning.

I was fortunate that my prognosis was good. Before surgery, (my disease) was staged at 2a. If I made it through the radiation, chemo and surgeries, and if my lymph nodes were clear, my doctors believed I would have a good outcome. I know there were a lot of ifs but having a positive outlook helped me deliver the information to my children.

I first told them that I had a ‘bad tumor.’ To my surprise, they asked if it was cancer. I acknowledged that and let them know I’d be getting medicine to shrink the tumor. Then we ended the conversation that day and they went off to play. With each treatment (that was coming up), my husband and I prepared them for what may happen – in terms they could understand – which very soon included medical terms like ‘chemo’ rather than ‘medicine.’ I tried to keep things as routine as possible, which I think helped them process their feelings in a secure environment. Having a support system and a sense of humor helps immensely.”

Extensive genetic testing revealed that Meg has no evidence of a genetic link to colorectal cancer; however, she and her husband recognize the importance of communicating with their children and explaining why they will have to be screened for colorectal cancer at a younger age than someone at “average risk”:“We explained to the kids that when they’re older they’ll need to ‘get checked,’ without really explaining the details of a colonoscopy. I think we’ll discuss that when they are a little older. But we do keep our annual primary doctor appointments and stress the importance of being aware of changes in your body – whatever they may be. And if something seems different, bring it to my attention and we can discuss.”

Meg and her husband are helping their children be proactive in their own health by stressing the importance of annual doctor appointments, being aware changes in the body, eating right, getting exercise and good sleep, and reducing stress. “It’s a long list! We have a busy lifestyle,” she said, “but we never want them to lose sight of the fact that staying healthy is imperative in the event cancer strikes. It’s your best defense!”


Jennifer Butler is the Community Outreach Manager at the Colon Cancer Foundation.