March 8, 2023

Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month: Family shares the importance of getting screened

Mike Cruz with his sister-in-law Toni Cruz and her husband Rick Cruz, Mike's brother.
Mike Cruz (left) with his sister-in-law Toni and her husband, Rick Cruz, Mike's brother.

22nd annual Bowlin for Colons happening Sunday, March 12

Madison, Wis. – March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, a time when experts urge patients to talk about risk factors like family history and to get screened.

For instance, last March, Toni Cruz, director of the UW Health Digestive Health Center, succeeded in getting her husband, who had recently turned 50, and a few others to schedule routine colonoscopies on the same day. When the results came back, her husband, Rick Cruz, was the one who received a stage 3 colon cancer diagnosis.

“Even though I work in this environment every day, we still needed time to process the news,” she said.

After the initial shock of the diagnosis, it was time to dive into treatment, Rick said.

“At first you’re mad, you’re overwhelmed,” he said. “Then it’s time for scans and tests, chemotherapy, radiation and eventually surgery.”

Colorectal cancer is the fourth-most diagnosed cancer in the United States for both men and women, according to the American Cancer Society. They estimate more than 100,000 people will be diagnosed with colon cancer in 2023 alone.

There are many risk factors associated with colorectal cancer, including obesity, smoking and moderate to heavy alcohol use, as well as family history, according to the American Cancer Society. In fact, people with a parent, sibling or child who has been diagnosed with colorectal cancer have two or three times the risk of developing colon cancer compared to those with no family history of the disease, according to the Colon Cancer Coalition. This turned out to be the case for the Cruz family.

“My dad was diagnosed with colon cancer 10 years ago,” Rick said. “So, when I found out I had it, I talked with my brothers and sisters about getting screened as soon as possible.”

His brother Mike Cruz, age 49, scheduled a colonoscopy right away and was also diagnosed with colon cancer. Mike was diagnosed at stage 1, which increases treatment options and improves the odds of a better recovery for patients, according to Dr. Sam Lubner, medical oncologist, UW Carbone Cancer Center.

Mike and Rick were ultimately at University Hospital in Madison at the same time on the same floor for their surgeries in November 2022.

“It was comforting to have a friendly face around,” Mike said. “We motivated each other to get up and get moving, even when one of us didn’t want to, and it helped us get through a difficult time.”

They both had a portion of their colons removed, though Mike only had to have surgery, as his cancer was caught before chemotherapy and radiation were required, according to Lubner.

“This is a perfect example of the importance of cancer screenings and knowing your family history,” Lubner said. “Knowing you are at an increased risk of developing colon cancer puts you, your family and your care team on notice, and getting screened as soon as possible gives us the best shot at a positive outcome for everyone.”

The rate of people being diagnosed with colon or rectal cancer each year has overall dropped, according to the American Cancer Society. From 2011 to 2019, incidence rates dropped by about 1% each year. However, rates of colorectal cancer for patients younger than 50 have gone in the opposite direction, with an increase of 1-2% per year since the mid-1990s.

“We’re seeing it more and more in younger patients,” Lubner said. “In fact, the recommended age for a first screening has decreased from 50 years old to 45 years old.”

Luckily, screening and therapeutics were successful for the Cruz brothers, he said. As of September, Rick is cancer-free. Mike was declared cancer-free in November.

Mike and Rick are not just brothers and fellow cancer survivors, they are co-workers at the company their father founded, ice fishing partners and now they will add bowling team members to that list.

Following their experience with colon cancer last year, the Cruz family will be giving back to the UW Carbone Cancer Center by participating in the 22nd annual Bowlin for Colons, an annual fundraiser for gastrointestinal cancer research.

“We’re looking forward to joining not just my colleagues, but the families who have had similar experiences to ours,” Toni said.