Cancer patient speaks

Published 10:20 pm Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Suffolk woman Pam Askew was only 35 years old when she first went to her doctor because of a constant stomachache and not feeling well.

She eventually was diagnosed with colon cancer, a disease that strikes about 140,000 Americans each year. Most people newly diagnosed with colon cancer are over 50, but the disease is becoming increasingly common in younger people.

The initial goal for Askew, a mother of three, was to live to see her daughter graduate high school. Now that daughter is 21 years old, and Askew is expecting her first grandchild.

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March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month, and Askew is speaking out about the importance of listening to your body and getting an early diagnosis.

Even though she was very young to be diagnosed with colon cancer, she knew something was wrong, she said.

“Early intervention is just so important,” she said. “Don’t ignore the signs and symptoms and think they’ll just go away. Early diagnosis and treatment is the best.”

After her first diagnosis and remission, “there were about seven or eight years where we thought everything was great,” she said. “Then, I got sick again.”

Her second cancer was deemed inoperable because of its dangerous location, so she started on a drug called Avastin, which prevents the tumor from setting up its own blood supply.

“I’m one of the longest-surviving people who started on the Avastin,” she said. “It’s been really interesting. I don’t have the same side effects as you do from a typical chemo that makes you really sick and makes you lose your hair.”

She travels to Duke University every three weeks for treatments and is convinced the drug has extended her life.

“It’s a new trend in medicine, more targeted therapies to help people without blasting the whole person,” she said. “The more we get, hopefully the more survival rates will increase and the more people will be helped. That’s my real hope.”

Despite her young age at her first diagnosis, Askew did fit another risk factor for colon cancer — family history. Both of her parents died of cancer. The disease or other colon problems in siblings or children can also increase risk. Ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease and Type 2 diabetes also increase risk.

The risk factors that can be controlled are the same as those for all cancers and some other diseases. They include:

  • Get tested for colon cancer. Screening should start at age 50 for most people, but talk to your doctor about your risk and whether you should start earlier.
  • Eat lots of vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Get your fiber from food, not supplements. Eat less red meat and processed meats.
  • Get regular exercise and maintain a healthy weight.
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Limit alcohol intake.

Symptoms of colon cancer include changes in bowel habits, weakness and fatigue, abdominal pain, unintended weight loss, rectal bleeding or blood in the stool, and diarrhea or constipation that lasts for more than a few days. The early stages of the disease do not typically cause symptoms, however, so regular screening is important.