The pandemic took its toll on many aspects of our life and health, including significant decreases in cancer screenings. Many people skipped or put off these appointments, and others were affected by temporary closures at medical facilities.
According to a 2022 study, the frequency of colonoscopies — vital screenings for colorectal cancer, now recommended for all adults beginning at age 45 — dropped by 16 percent during the first year of COVID.
Cancer screenings save lives. No one knows that better than Marielle McLeod.
It started with a little blood in Marielle’s stool, which didn’t worry her. “I was driving three hours a day for work,” said Marielle, who was 36 at the time. “I thought maybe it was a hemorrhoid.” It went away, but then she started having other issues.
“I just felt off. I was bloated, uncomfortable, and fatigued all the time,” explained Marielle. “I lost 20 pounds, which was a clear sign that something was really wrong.”
Her primary care doctor began treating her for irritable bowel syndrome. When the medication didn’t help, a coworker referred her to a gastroenterologist, who scheduled a colonoscopy.
As they prepped Marielle for the procedure, her nurses reassured her that getting colorectal cancer at her age was rare, especially with no family history of the disease. But the moment she woke up from the anesthesia, she knew.
“The looks on their faces said it all. I had Stage 3B colon cancer. I was in a state of shock. Everything after that was a blur,” she says.
She received an oncology referral and mountains of information to read and absorb. She had a port inserted so she could receive chemotherapy. “It was the first day of school, and all I could think about was how I was going to tell my husband and four kids.”
Finding Her Calling
A woman of strong faith, Marielle knew that her colorectal cancer fight was “never about me.” She vowed to do everything possible to see her kids grow up. That included undergoing 14 rounds of chemo, one of which caused a severe allergic reaction that nearly killed her.
This life-altering experience made her rethink what she wanted to do with her life. When she finished all her treatments, Marielle decided she was ready for a career change. One afternoon while she was searching online for jobs, a listing popped up: The Colorectal Cancer Alliance (the Alliance) needed a bilingual patient navigator. Although she hadn’t heard of the Alliance until then, it seemed like a sign from above.
“I’m Latina, and I speak Spanish. I’ve always had jobs helping the underserved, so I applied that day.” Shortly afterwards, she was hired.
As a patient navigator, Marielle educates people about colorectal cancer screenings and treatments. She works with patients and their caregivers, many of them from vulnerable communities. She accompanies them through their journey to wellness, connecting them to all kinds of resources, including financial support, if needed.
Cycles of Impact
According to the Alliance, Black people have the highest rates of colorectal cancer of any racial/ethnic group in the U.S. They are both 20 percent more likely to get colorectal cancer, and 40 percent more likely to die from the disease, than non-Hispanic whites.
That’s why Independence Blue Cross and the Alliance have collaborated on Cycles of Impact, a comprehensive new cancer screening and prevention program designed to improve health equity. The program specifically addresses the significant reduction in colorectal cancer screening rates among Black Philadelphians since the pandemic started.
Cycles of Impact aims to screen at least 2,400 people in Philadelphia and prevent at least 60 cancer diagnoses during its three-year pilot period. Independence Blue Cross is investing $2.5 million in this initiative.
Paying It Forward
Marielle isn’t shy to share her personal story, especially if it can convince someone who is hesitant to get screened.
She also wants younger people to know that her experience is becoming more common. In fact, colorectal cancer rates in young people are rising by about two percent annually, according to the Alliance. By 2030, researchers predict that colorectal cancer will be the leading cause of cancer deaths in people ages 20 – 49.
Marielle advises people to learn about their family medical history to see if they might be at a higher risk of developing the disease. “Don’t wait until your mom or favorite aunt gets cancer. You need to be intentional about these discussions, even if they are uncomfortable. There’s no perfect time to talk about these things.”
In July 2022, five years after her diagnosis, Marielle got the good news that her cancer is in remission. It has been a difficult journey, but she’s grateful for each day, and for being able to help others in their time of need.
“My mantra is to help just one person,” she said. “My faith showed me my purpose and now I can use it for the greater good.”
For more information about colorectal cancer screenings, visit ccalliance.org.