March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, so OutSmart reached out to two of Houston’s most knowledgeable CRC survivors, Paula Chambers Raney and Kecia Johnson, who are deeply committed to raising awareness of a disease threatening our LGBTQ community in particular.
“There is often a resistance to discussing colorectal cancer. People just don’t like to say the word ‘colon’,” Paula Chambers Raney says with a smile.
“Well—too bad! We may not like to say it, but we all have one, and making it a part of everyone’s routine health care will save many, many lives!” she emphasizes.
Raney is passionate about enlightening the public, and particularly the LGBTQ community, on the risks of this treatable disease.
“Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the US, and it is not getting better. While there is a slight drop in deaths among older people, thanks to better detection, we are seeing more of it in people at a younger and younger age. Colorectal cancer is projected to become the number-one cancer killer of Americans under age 50 by 2030!” Raney says.
That statistic is unacceptable to this determined survivor. “We should not be losing people to this disease. About 60 percent of colorectal cancers can be treated—and even cured—if they are caught early enough. Timely identification and treatment is absolutely the best defense. We have work to do!”
What, exactly, is colorectal cancer, you ask? The term “colorectal” refers to the two areas where the cancerous tissue or tumors first appear. The colon (also known as the large intestine) is about six feet long and terminates with the anus. The last five to ten inches of the colon is called the rectum.
Cancer located in the rectum is called rectal cancer, and cancer located farther up in the colon is deemed colon cancer. Both types are commonly known simply as colorectal cancer, or CRC. About 72 percent of new CRCs appear in the colon, and the remaining 28 percent appear in the rectum. While they are similar, their treatment often varies.
Raney now serves as the national “hope coordinator” for Fight Colorectal Cancer, the leading CRC nonprofit advocacy organization in the United States. As an advocate, she focuses on education and screening in minority communities throughout Houston, and specifically the LGBTQ community.
There are many stereotypes about cancer that make Raney’s efforts an uphill battle. Some Americans assume that CRC is just an old person’s disease, or one limited to certain ethnic groups.
The demographics of CRC do, in fact, vary by age and ethnicity, but no one is left behind. According to Raney, diagnoses are about 35 percent higher in men than in women, and 15 percent higher in Blacks than in whites. Nationally, the mortality rate for Blacks is 40 percent higher—due to a multitude of reasons, including disparities in healthcare options for people of color—while Jews of Eastern European descent have one of the highest risks for colorectal cancer of any ethnic group in the world.
Raney also emphasizes that the LGBTQ community is particularly vulnerable. Large numbers of gay or bisexual men and trans people are diagnosed annually, due to the transmission of the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) during sexual activity. HPV is not usually dangerous, but the condition can cause genital-anal warts to eventually become cancerous.
Fight CRC’s official Hope Ambassador this year is Kecia Johnson, a vibrant, intelligent Houstonian who contracted HIV in a relationship at the age of 20. By age 35, she was facing Stage 3 anal cancer.
“Even with my HIV [screenings], the CRC escaped detection. I had been seen by four different doctors and was in terrible pain when it was finally identified in an emergency room. It seems crazy, but when someone is young—say, under 45—tests for CRC are not routinely issued. That’s why we must insist that CRC tests be given as a matter of course. I suggest annuals starting at 35.
“And HIV will suppress the immune system and create a condition that makes the human body subject to all sorts of disorders. In my case, and for many in the LGBTQ community, CRC is absolutely a greater threat than in the public at large,” Johnson explains.
“I am dedicated to getting the word out to my beloved community now—the people who have been so supportive of me through everything. I figure that if I had to go through all this, maybe I can help someone else avoid it,” she concludes with a smile.
In 2014, Paula Chambers Raney and her partner of three decades traveled to New York City, where they exchanged marriage vows. But the couple’s honeymoon did not last long. Just one day after the wedding, Raney fell ill.
Three months later, she was laying in a hospital bed in Houston while her wife, Lara Raney, held her hand. After a long wait for the diagnosing physician, Raney heard the words that she never dreamed she would: “You have cancer,” the doctor stated, his eyes lowered.
“Today, nine years later, I am thriving—but I could not have done it alone,” Raney says. “I am so grateful to my wife and to all my mentors from Fight CRC. Now I feel compelled to help others, and it all starts with ‘getting your rear in gear.’ Get checked out!”
To learn more about colorectal cancer, its prevention, and much more, visit FightCRC.org.