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Cancer screening and seatbelts...You make the call

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Col. Wayne Monteith, 50th Space Wing commander. (U.S. Air Force photo)

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Col. Wayne Monteith, Assistant Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force (Space) (U.S. Air Force photo)

WASHINGTON -- Editor's note: In recognition of Colon Cancer Awareness Month, the following guest commentary was submitted by Col. Wayne Monteith, former Vandenberg missile training student,  576th Flight Test Squadron ICBM Test Operations director and chief and 392nd Training Squadron commander.

As you've gotten past the title of this article you may be asking yourself what these two topics could possibly have in common. If you bear with me for a bit, we'll get there.

Wearing a seatbelt is second nature. In fact, I rarely even start my car before buckling up! You might be thinking that's a little extreme, especially since you will probably never actually need a seat belt. That's right, I said never. So, why wear it all the time? Because you will have a split second of warning before an accident occurs; certainly far too little time to fasten your belt before impact. In fact, I've only needed mine once in more than 30 years of driving and, in the days before airbags, that seatbelt stopped me from unexpectedly exiting my car through the windshield. It turned out to be pretty darn important that sunny afternoon. Hopefully we can agree we wear a seatbelt because we never know when we'll actually need one.

Here's the connection, colon cancer screening functions on the exact same principle. In an ideal lifetime you'll be healthy, cancer free and never need a screening; in this case I'm talking about the dreaded colonoscopy. Pretty simple; no cancer, no worries, no "scope." But therein lays the problem: Much like no one plans to have a car accident, no one plans to get cancer. How can I be so sure? I'm sure because I am a Colon Cancer survivor.

Two years ago, at the urging of my doctors and the insistence of my secretary, I had my recommended "routine" colonoscopy. Surprisingly, much like my unplanned car accident, they found a tumor that should not have been there; it was aggressive and it had already spread to my lymphatic system. Skipping the medical jargon that translates to "not good." But even more surprisingly, it had been growing for a number of years, starting when I was in the absolute best shape of my adult life. I had no symptoms, I appeared perfectly healthy, we have no family history of any type of cancer, and yet I had Stage III Colon Cancer and left untreated "it" would kill me. Mull that over for a minute, I sure have. No more proms to fret over, games, track meets or recitals to attend, weddings to help plan or grandkids to watch mature. No more hugs, anniversaries or sunsets to share. No more of anything.

What was the upside of my screening? I endured multiple surgeries, six months of body wracking chemotherapy and was given a new lease on the rest of my life. As a bonus, when my hair finally grew back the gray was gone! All in all, a bargain at twice the price.

You cannot always predict the actions of other drivers and cancer does not discriminate. I never planned to get into that car accident and I absolutely never planned to get cancer. But no one asked me.

So, ask yourself, are you feeling lucky? Will you skip the seatbelt and hope no one ever hits you? As importantly, will you roll the dice on cancer screening? Are you willing to bet it won't happen to you and decide avoiding the colonoscopy is worth the risk of dying and leaving loved ones long before your time? Will you wait to see if symptoms appear before acting? And if they do, will you then hope and pray your surgeons and oncologists can work a medical miracle just for you? Or will you, like me, skip the myriad excuses and just "Git 'er done?" Early diagnosis can turn a potential disaster into a speed bump. So, do yourself, your friends, your loved ones, and me a favor...just get screened!!