Sue Falco wants to get people talking about their rear ends, and many in Charlotte are joining the conversation.
Falco, 42, is a colorectal cancer survivor who lives in Greygate with her husband, John, and daughters, Mia, 6, and Ava, 4.
Diagnosed at 39, with no family history of the illness, Falco said she believes she was showing symptoms of the disease as many as eight years before the cancer was discovered. She sought treatment from various doctors whose assessments included hemorrhoids and irritable bowel syndrome.
Even after a colonoscopy in 2003 uncovered a precancerous polyp, she was assured she could wait five years to repeat the procedure.
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Falco lived with ongoing symptoms including bloating, flatulence and intermittent bleeding. It wasn't until 2008, when the bleeding worsened, that an exam was performed, the tumor was discovered and surgery scheduled.
Days later, Falco was told she had cancer.
"I had most of the symptoms, but I had nothing on their list of risk factors," said Falco. "I was young, I was healthy, I exercised and no one in my family had it."
After extensive research, Falco chose Dr. Eric Dozois at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., to perform a radical resection to remove 90 percent of her rectum and a portion of her colon. The surgery was a success, and Dozois was able to re-establish the colon-rectum connection to spare Falco the need for a colostomy bag.
Throughout treatment and recovery, Falco met a lot of patients and survivors with stories like hers. She befriended numerous women who did not fit the colorectal-cancer profile, and she began to realize the suffering and misdiagnoses she went through were not uncommon.
"So many of us are young people, but doctors keep telling us we shouldn't have it. We need to get the word out that colorectal cancer is not just an older person's illness, and it's completely preventable," Falco said.
Statistics support her anecdotal evidence. A study published by the Academic Surgical Congress found significant increases in young-onset (younger than 50) colon and rectal cancer between 1998 and 2007.
Dozois leads a multidisciplinary group of doctors that has been researching young-onset colorectal patients for about five years.
"I've had several patients in the last decade that are young, and I recognized that this may be a bigger problem than people realize," said Dozois. "Personally, I think we need to do more research in that area, we need to write more about it, and primary-care physicians need to be thinking (colorectal cancer) is a possibility. Then we need to work with our community leaders to have venues to raise awareness for the public."
Falco is doing her part to get the word out.
Less than a year after her surgery, Falco ran in the Get Your Rear in Gear 5K race benefitting the Colon Cancer Coalition in Raleigh.
When she finished, she decided she had to bring the race to Charlotte.
One of her first steps was to call the Buddy Kemp Cancer Center to get local support. She was directed to Pam Gwaltney, a gastrointestinal cancer nurse navigator with the Presbyterian Cancer Center, and she immediately jumped on board.
"I don't know if people are aware, but colorectal cancer is the third-most-common cancer in both men and women," said Gwaltney, whose job as nurse navigator is to guide patients and their families through the cancer care process. Gwaltney said she meets with a lot of young colorectal cancer patients in advanced stages of the disease and feels their cancer symptoms might be overlooked because they aren't considered the norm.
"So when Sue asked me to be on their committee, I was so excited about the race. Most of (the committee members) are survivors except for me, and their enthusiasm and energy was great."
National Get Your Rear in Gear organizers told Falco to expect about 500 attendees and to try to break even the first year out.
The Charlotte team shattered those expectations, with 1,100 registered runners and roughly $35,000 raised that will go to the local community. A big chunk of that money is funding the first-ever colorectal-cancer support group, which will begin meeting March 7 at the Buddy Kemp Cancer Support Center.
"I never thought we could pull it off, but to see all the sponsors, all the people, all the energy ... I even started to run, I was so inspired," said Gwaltney. "This event was not only a success but gave us one more level of support to give to the colorectal cancer community as a whole."
Falco credits her committee members, race director Paige Hauff and the support of local sponsors with the race's unusual first-year success.
But she also believes the event provides a venue where it's OK to talk about our back ends without feeling embarrassed. "I really think more people are affected by colorectal cancer than anybody talks about," Falco said.
This year's local Get Your Rear in Gear event will be March 5 and includes the 5K run/walk, a kids' fun run, a health expo and the Coca Cola Discovery Vehicle. The committee is hoping to raise the number of registrations to 1,500.
Falco's experience has changed her perspective and her career.
Looking for more meaning from her work, she switched professions, from software trainer to photographer. Sue Falco Photography focuses on individual and family portraits that capture people and their relationships in an honest, candid way.
She often offers complimentary sessions to her fellow colorectal cancer survivors.
"In a weird way, the cancer was a blessing. It gave me more than it took away," Falco said. "It didn't matter how big, how successful the race was going to be - I was totally committed. It was part of my getting well. I needed something good to come out of something bad. And it did, and then some."