'The best screening test is the one that gets done:' 5 Qs with professional golfer Tom Lehman, CRC survivor

Colorectal cancer is the third-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S., despite survivorship rates being high when the disease is detected early, according to the American Cancer Society. The society estimates 50,630 people will die of colorectal cancer in 2018.

However, due to increased screening rates and improvements in treatment, there are over one million survivors of colorectal cancer in the U.S., including Tom Lehman, a professional golfer who was diagnosed with the disease in 1995.

Mr. Lehman shared his story fighting colorectal cancer with Becker's ASC Review, as well as why he's partnered with Fight Colorectal Cancer and Exact Sciences:

Question:  Can you describe your experience fighting colon cancer? What were the next steps you took after learning of your diagnosis?

Tom Lehman: In April 1995, I was playing in the Masters. I had a sore knee and started taking Advil to treat it. Suddenly, I developed serious symptoms. [I experienced] lots of bleeding, which I didn’t know at the time is associated with colon cancer. I kept playing golf for a couple weeks before heading home to have a colonoscopy, at the advice of my brother’s father-in-law who was a doctor at Mayo Clinic.

My doctor discovered polyps that turned out to be malignant. At 36 years old, I was diagnosed with Stage 1 colon cancer. I’m not much of a worrier, but it was a tough experience for my wife. Fortunately, because my cancer was detected early, I had the polyps removed and did not need any further treatment. After a short break, I was back on the golf course.

Q: What was treatment like for you, and how did you overcome the disease?

TL: I was very lucky to have my cancer detected early at Stage 1 when colon cancer is highly treatable. Left untreated, colon cancer kills 50,000 Americans each year.

Like some patients, I never had to deal with a late-stage cancer diagnosis or go through chemotherapy or radiation. After my diagnosis and treatment, I started taking my health more seriously. This meant getting regular physicals, making sure I had good nutrition and getting colonoscopies on a regular basis as directed by my doctor.

Q: Why did you choose to work with Fight Colorectal Cancer (Fight CRC) and Exact Sciences?

TL: When I reflect on my experience with colon cancer, I think about how fortunate I was. The earlier colon cancer is caught, the better. When detected early, colon cancer has a 90 percent five-year survival rate. What if I hadn’t taken the Advil that led to the bleeding? I never would have been screened for colon cancer, and I could have been diagnosed much later when it isn’t nearly as treatable. Ironically, my doctor at Mayo Clinic was Dr. David Ahlquist, who later partnered with Exact Sciences to create a highly sensitive, noninvasive colon cancer screening option.

I am working with Fight CRC and Exact Sciences to get the word out about the importance of colon cancer screening and encourage people to speak with their healthcare providers about their screening options. More than one-third of eligible Americans are not getting screened; we have to help improve America’s colon cancer screening rates.

Q: What advice would you give to others fighting colon cancer?

TL: Try your hardest to stay positive. In life and in golf, a good attitude is vital. Also, screening is vital. Talking openly with your healthcare providers about your health is so important, even if the topic is uncomfortable.

It’s also critical to recognize that colon cancer isn’t simply tied to family history, diet and lack of exercise. I had no family history when I was diagnosed, and was at the height of my PGA Tour career. Be sure to speak with your healthcare provider about the appropriate screening regime for you. Today, we have guideline-sanctioned, first-line screening options that are noninvasive, accurate and importantly, convenient and easy to use. After all, the best screening test is the one that gets done.

Q: How will you use your position on the Tour to promote colon cancer prevention?

TL: From 1995 until this year’s Cologuard Classic tournament, I didn’t share my experience with Stage 1 colon cancer. I’m sharing it now because I realize that screening is so important, and I have the opportunity to help make a difference. Being in the world of professional golf allows me to share my story widely, and hopefully focus other people on getting screened for colon cancer.

I plan to keep on sharing my story on behalf of Fight CRC and Exact Sciences. By emphasizing the importance of early detection through a range of colon cancer screening options, we can make a difference in our shared goal of eradicating this disease.

Note: Responses were edited for style and content.

More articles on gastroenterology:
5 must-read articles for GI physicians this week: August 23-29
Tanvi Khurana, MD, joins Attleboro Gastroenterology Associates — 3 insights
NCI recognizes Texas Tech's CRC screening program — 4 insights

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