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‘I thought it was an old man's disease’

Just as many women projected to be diagnosed with colorectal cancer as men in 2005.
/ Source: TODAY

An estimated 150,000 people in America will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer this year and more than 57,000 will die from it. What too many people still don't understand is this is not just a disease that affects men. Two women talk about their fight against colon cancer with “Today” host Katie Couric.

By all measures, Rozanne Prisament fit the standard of a healthy woman in her 40s. An attorney in New York, and a mother of three, she still managed time to exercise regularly.  She always ate well and never smoked.

“I mean, I was a little bit of a fanatic about health,” says Prisament.

So at age 47 when Prisament started having rectal bleeding, she didn't think it could be anything serious. “I went to my primary care physician, who did an examination and said I had hemorrhoids — not to worry about it — and that was exactly what I wanted to hear. I was very happy with that diagnosis — there was no follow up required,” she says.

Coming from a family of relatives that all lived into their 90s, Rozanne didn't consider that anything could be wrong with her. So as her symptoms reoccurred, she would simply wait patiently until they again subsided.

“There would be weeks when it would completely go away and I would think, Oh, you know, that's over with. I’m glad I don't have to cope with that anymore,” says Rozanne.

For three whole years, Rozanne ignored her symptoms — rectal bleeding, excessive diarrhea and severe abdominal pain — as her body was fighting to tell her something was wrong. She told no one about what she was going through.

When she could no longer eat or control her bowels, she admits her denial was ridiculous.

“I was downtown during my lunch break at work and I remember, I was in the pharmacy, looking at all these adult disposable diapers and I’m thinking, Wait a minute!  This is the wrong scenario. I should not be here looking at this! That's when I realized, I’m in denial. There’s something very wrong here and I have to get a doctor to help me.”

Luckily for Rozanne, she sought help when she did.

After hearing her symptoms, Dr. Mark Pochapin, director of the Jay Monahan Center for Gastrointestinal Health in New York City, insisted she have a colonoscopy.

“I woke up in the middle of the test and right on that big screen was a huge tumor.  I could see it … I’m looking on the screen, my screen, and it's a tumor. It was beyond belief,” says Prisament.

“I thought it was an old man's disease,” she adds.

It's a commonly held misconception that Pochapin says can be deadly. “Colon cancer doesn't really care about gender.  Men and women get colon cancer at the same rates, and just because you think that as a female you may be immune to this disease, you're not, because this disease is an equal opportunity disease,” he says.

Rozanne's subsequent surgery was completely successful. After all the years of ignoring and denying, she was very lucky. The cancer had been found early and had not spread.

Her fear of the unknown has been replaced by gratitude for what she knows now.

“I’m just so happy to go now for my colonoscopy because it saved my life, and I’m so happy to be alive.”

Unlike Rozanne Prisament, who spent years denying her symptoms, Robin Thompson spent years trying to get someone to pay attention to hers.

Thompson was a former nurse in the Air Force and is now a pediatric nurse at an elementary school. She first started having rectal bleeding and serious abdominal pain when she was just 42.

“I knew the symptoms I was having were serious and I needed to take them seriously,” says Thompson.

“I started going to different physicians with my symptoms in the hope that one would do some diagnostic testing [and] they all pretty much had the same thought that it was an inflammatory bowel disease or an irritable bowel syndrome,” she says.

Robin also has a family history of colon cancer — two of her uncles died from the disease — which concerned her even more. So she continued looking for second and third opinions. “When I’d asked for more invasive testing, their thought was that it wasn't necessary. I was a young female. I didn't look ill, I didn't act ill. I don't want to say that they didn't seem concerned.  I think they thought I was too concerned,” says Thompson.

Robin refused to give up. “I just kept going back to doctors. By now, I was in so much pain I could not eat — eating only increased the abdominal pain. I couldn't go anywhere without first scoping out where all the bathrooms were going to be.”Finally, after seeing five different physicians and suffering through two years of symptoms, Robin was referred to Dr. Roy Wong at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He discussed all of her symptoms and still came up with the same diagnosis as the other doctors.

“Dr. Wong said, ‘I think it's inflammatory bowel disease.  But if it'll alleviate your concerns and if it'll make you feel better, I’ll do a colonoscopy.’  Dr. Wong was the first one that listened to me. He may not have agreed with my diagnosis, which was fine. But he listened to my complaint and took it seriously,” says Thompson.

Wong found a four-centimeter mass in the lower half of Robin's colon.

“I remember waking up and seeing someone bending over me. It was Dr. Wong and he was crying.  I felt really bad for him. I remember looking at him and I said, ‘You didn't believe me, did you?’  He just cried … he felt bad,” she says.

“It's extremely difficult to tell someone this, especially when you didn't realize yourself that she would have something this bad,” says Wong. “Thank God we did the colonoscopy and found the tumor. Her story I tell to my fellows and trainees.”

Robin was diagnosed with stage two colon cancer. Her surgery was successful and she didn't need chemotherapy. She has been cancer-free for six years.

Like Rozanne Prisament, Robin Thompson is living proof that women can get colon cancer and it can happen to anyone. 

Thompson says, “I'm sitting here to tell you it is not a man's disease. Unfortunately, I was just a healthy woman.”