The iconic singer is using his star power to raise awareness and change people’s tunes about getting screened for colon cancer.
When multi-hyphenate talent Harry Connick, Jr. turned 50, he decided to do something that many adults of a certain age should, but often don’t, commit to — getting screened for colon cancer.
The actor, singer, and talk show host known for everything from crooning jazz standards to guest-starring on “Will & Grace,” said that it was important to get screened because, for him, cancer is personal.
“To be honest, I’m sick of cancer, man. My mother died of cancer, my wife had breast cancer. I’m tired of it,” Connick told Healthline.
He and his wife Jill are serving as the faces of “The New 50,” a national colon cancer awareness campaign from Cologuard, an FDA-approved at-home colon cancer screening test.
Given that colon cancer is one of the most preventable types of cancer if detected early — 90 percent of colon cancers can be treated if found early — Connick says that he sees his celebrity platform as a useful way to spread awareness.
The need to get tested
Colorectal cancer, cancer that starts in either the colon or rectum, affects a wide spectrum of the population. It hits both women and men of all ethnic backgrounds across the United States.
The second leading cancer killer in the country, colorectal cancer is often found in people who are 50 or older.
In 2015, there were 140,788 new cases of reported colorectal cancer in the United States. It resulted in 52,396 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Connick says that, like many men his age, he was initially queasy with the idea of getting a colonoscopy. He said that people often feel ashamed or embarrassed to go in for the procedure.
So, he asked his doctor about a different and, as he said, less invasive way to get screened.
Given his age, the performer qualified for the at-home Cologuard kit, which involves you taking a stool sample, sending it off to a lab, and getting your results back within two weeks. These tests look for small amounts of blood in a person’s stool that can’t be seen by the human eye. They also test for nine DNA biomarkers in three different genes that can be found in colorectal cancer.
Dr. Smitha Krishnamurthi, a hematologist and medical oncologist at Cleveland Clinic, said that it is crucial that people have conversations with their doctors about the best way for them to get screened for colorectal cancer.
She said while the emphasis is on people age 50 or older to get screened, the numbers of younger people getting colorectal cancer have been rising over the last few decades.
She told Healthline that the typical gripes around getting a traditional colonoscopy usually center on the prep work that’s involved.
You have to take a prep day to cleanse your colon and usually have to take off a whole day from work.
“I tell patients to get a colonoscopy scheduled for a Monday so you are home on a Sunday anyways to prepare,” she said. “You can take it easy, schedule your prep for when you know you have a time when you can be kind of relaxed.”
She added, “I also want to make clear that for somebody who has symptoms — if they have blood in their stool, for instance — please don’t ignore it. Don’t chalk it up to hemorrhoids. So many patients have some intermittent bleeding, especially people who are young and cancer is not on their minds, and they ignore the symptoms. It always needs to be brought up to the doctor if you’re having some unusual blood.”
Krishnamurthi said having the noninvasive Cologuard stool test — so far, the only one approved by the FDA — is another great option for people who are concerned about the constraints a colonoscopy might put on their day-to-day schedules. She added that your doctor might recommend you get a colonoscopy anyways if your home test is positive for abnormal DNA or blood.
The American Cancer Society recommends that people at average risk for colorectal cancer get screened as early as age 45.
Michael Sapienza, CEO of the Colorectal Cancer Alliance, echoed Krishnamurthi’s warnings that if you find bloody or abnormal stools, cramping, night sweats, or other changes in bowel habits, please ask your doctor about testing.
As with Connick, the need to raise awareness is personal for Sapienza. His mother died of colorectal cancer at age 51 in 2009. He told Healthline that this personal tragedy spurred him to “make sure no one dies from this disease.”
“I just turned 40 and I was like 28 when my mom was diagnosed. I was 30 when she died. I didn’t know where my colon was. I had no idea at the time,” he said. “At first, I felt despair when my mother was passing. Then, I felt anger. I wasn’t seeing anything about colon cancer, anything about colorectal cancer, in general. I was pissed, I was angry. I took my grief, my family’s grief and helped build this movement and momentum into an almost $15 million organization. It’s been the most rewarding thing in my life and the hardest thing in my life.”
From Couric to Connick — celebrity awareness
Sapienza said that campaigns like those involving the Connicks are important in raising awareness. In fact, the medical community still cites the “Katie Couric effect,” highlighting the huge impact the then-“Today Show” anchor’s live, on-air colonoscopy in 2000 had on colorectal cancer awareness nationally and globally.
Couric’s husband, Jay Monahan, died from colon cancer two years earlier, spurring the TV journalist to use her platform to shine a spotlight on what was, at the time, an under-covered form of cancer.
Yet, even with all of that celebrity attention, Sapienza said colorectal cancer remains misunderstood and stigmatized.
“There’s been incremental awareness. But there’s a huge stigma around colonoscopies, especially among men,” he said. “They don’t want to have anything stuck ‘where the sun don’t shine.’ There’s a lot of disinformation and fear around the prep for a colonoscopy. It’s why something like Cologuard is so helpful and important, but there is still a lot of bad information out there.”
He points out that people don’t talk about colorectal cancer the way they might about breast cancer because “there is a stigma around that part of our bodies — it’s still taboo.”
Connick’s wife Jill was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012 — she recently hit the five-year remission mark — and he said it hit their family hard when she was first diagnosed.
She had no family history of breast cancer and was going for a routine mammogram when her doctors spotted it. Connick said this surprise spurred the two of them to make cancer awareness — and spreading the importance of early detection and treatment — a key part of their advocacy work.
“I just want people to realize that it can happen to anyone. It doesn’t matter how healthy you think you are or how much exercise you do or how healthy you eat or how impervious you think you are,” he said. “Jill had no family history and eats as clean as anybody. Cancer doesn’t care how you live. That’s why we have to do everything we can to fight it.”
‘A small part of this huge equation’
Connick said that when it comes to watching loved ones struggle with cancer, there are a few key outlets of support he has turned to.
“For me, I turn to my family, my faith, and my friends — that’s what works for me,” he stressed. “Everybody is different. For me, it was the people I love and it was my faith that helped me a lot. I’m Catholic, so I pray a lot and asked God to help. I count on my friends and those friends know that in the throes of a crisis, I’ll be there as well.”
Using his star power to raise awareness has given Connick the opportunity to be there for strangers in addition to loved ones. In fact, he’s seen the difference using his platform can make firsthand.
He recounted a memorable moment when was still hosting his daytime talk show and spotlighted the importance of early screening and detection before his national audience.
“A person who watched our show showed up and said ‘I never got screened before, I didn’t know I was supposed to. I watched the show, I got screened and found a tumor, I had surgery the next day,’” he recalled. “If we can encourage one person to get screened, man, people’s lives can be saved.”
What does he make of his own role in raising awareness? Connick remains humble.
“It’s a nice feeling, but I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about that,” he said. “We are a small part of this huge equation — a lot of people dedicated their lives to cancer research. That is awesome and that is what we need to highlight.”