As one of the leading causes of cancer-related deaths in the United States, colorectal cancer touches thousands of families each year.
Fran McCaffery, the men’s basketball coach at the University of Iowa, knows this pain all too well, losing not only his father, but also his mother to colorectal cancer. Jack McCaffery died 15 years ago at age 69 and Shirley McCaffery died five years ago at the age of 75.
Coach McCaffery, 53, remembers when he and his family first started to notice that something might be wrong with his dad.
“He and my mom visited me when I was coaching at Notre Dame, and I said to my mom, ‘Dad doesn’t look like himself.’”
McCaffery knew his father hadn’t been feeling well. “I knew he wasn’t going to the doctor. I took him to my doctor who knew right away there was something wrong and they started doing tests.” Unfortunately, the tests revealed that McCaffery’s father had advanced colorectal cancer.
Jack McCaffery, a Philadelphia police officer, “was never sick one time that I remember,” Coach McCaffery recalls. “He never missed a day of work; he never missed anything. Physically he was in great shape in every way. He had the body of someone much younger and would have lived 20 more years had we diagnosed this earlier. He was 68 when he was diagnosed, and he was 69 when he passed.”
McCaffery says, “Colorectal cancer should not be a death sentence. I’ve talked to friends of mine who are doctors and they say colon cancer can be 100 percent curable. If you go get a colonoscopy, and they remove the polyps, you’ll never die from that.”
Reminiscing about his parents, McCaffery says, “They both were from a generation, they didn’t go to the doctor.”
Even after his father’s death, McCaffery’s mother Shirley, who had been a high school secretary, was hesitant to go to the doctor.
“She didn’t go for the annual checkups that she should have,” he says. “It was like, if you don’t go to the doctor, you don’t get any bad news. She was also in very good health. She just thought she was fine. She had no reason to believe that she was necessarily going to be any more susceptible than anybody else to colorectal cancer.”
Very similar to his father’s situation, McCaffery’s mother first started to suspect something was wrong when she didn’t feel well. “She was diagnosed in the springtime and she was gone by that fall,” he says.
McCaffery hopes that others can learn from his family’s experiences.
“If you actually watch someone die of cancer, the incredible discomfort and pain and difficulty that they endure is enough to make you want to be sure that nothing happens to someone else,” he says.
“Have your annual exams, your checkups. They can prevent you from going through what my parents went through,” he says. “Look at your family history. If there’s any history at all in your family, get a colonoscopy as early as possible, no later than 40.”
He adds, “Everybody thinks that a colonoscopy is worse than it is. It’s an invasive procedure. Nobody wants that, but it’s not painful, it’s very simple. It’s really not bad; I’ve had three. I started much earlier because of family history.”
McCaffery hopes his story inspires people to schedule their own colonoscopy. “If I get through to some people that say, ‘Hey, I’m going to go get that colonoscopy.’ I try to make sure I relieve any fears that they have that it’s some kind of horrible procedure, because it’s not.”