Reagan’s Surgery for Colon Cancer Breaks a Taboo, Brings a Floodtide of Calls

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Times Staff Writer

Responding to President Reagan’s widely publicized surgery for colon cancer, individuals throughout the country have been calling cancer physicians and information services in record numbers.

They have also been scheduling more appointments with their physicians and purchasing increased numbers of over-the-counter tests for colon cancer. Physicians and manufacturers alike say they have frequently been hard-pressed to keep up with the demand.

A similar surge of interest was noted in 1974 when First Lady Betty Ford had a mastectomy.

“The response has been even greater this time,” said Robert McKenna, national president of the American Cancer Society, “probably because colo-rectal cancer affects men” as well as women.


The demand has tapered off in the last few days, but most observers think that the episode will have lasting impact. “The taboo against talking about colon and rectal cancer, about the elimination of wastes from the body, and about the bowels in general has been broken,” said Irving Rimer of the cancer society.

By contrast, Rimer said, “We did an informal survey a year ago and found that colon and rectal cancer are the least reported on and talked about forms of cancer, despite the fact that they are second only to lung cancer in the number of deaths they cause.”

The cancer society estimates that 138,000 new cases of colon and rectal cancer will be discovered in 1985 and that nearly 60,000 of the victims will die.

The news of Reagan’s surgery, however, produced a groundswell of interest. Lillian Gigliotti of the National Cancer Institute said the number of calls to the organization’s 20 cancer information centers around the country rose from about 50 a day before the surgery to an average of 1,250 a day in the period immediately after the surgery.

“Most of the callers simply wanted some information about what symptoms to look for, how often they should have a checkup and so forth,” Gigliotti said. “Some of them had one or more of the warning signs for colo-rectal cancer, however, and we advised them to see a physician immediately.”

Both the Los Angeles chapter of the American Cancer Society and the Physician Referral Service of the Los Angeles County Medical Assn. also reported increased numbers of calls.


“Before the surgery, we rarely, if ever, got calls seeking referrals for bowel examinations,” said David Zeitlin of the medical association. “Since then, we’ve gotten dozens.” The local office of the cancer society reported 350 phone calls in the first three days.

Telephone interviews with the offices of eight area physicians specializing in surgery for colo-rectal cancer suggest that these specialists bore the brunt of increased calls. A receptionist at one physician’s office said the number of calls the first few days was “horrendous.”

Dr. Luis Martinez of Pasadena said: “We weren’t inundated with calls, but there was a notable increase. Many were our own patients who called simply felt increased concern. We referred many of the callers to their own physicians, but for those who were in the right age range--over 40--we did make appointments.”

Like other physicians who practice this uncommon specialty, Martinez said he was pleased to see the increased interest. “The most important factor in treating colo-rectal cancer is catching it early. It is really disappointing to us to see a lot of late cancers that we can’t help much coming into our office.”

One other measure of the increased interest is sales of an over-the-counter test called Hemoccult for detecting blood in stools, one of the warning signs of cancer. The manufacturer, SmithKline Diagnostics, reports that shipments of the test have risen significantly. Some of the increase was due to pharmacists anticipating demand, a company spokeswoman said, but many stores simply sold out.

Area hospitals did not report any increases in calls, probably because people chose to call private physicians.


Another major benefit of Reagan’s illness, the cancer society’s McKenna said, is that “it shows colon cancer victims that they are not doomed to being social outcasts and that they are not necessarily going to die. They are also probably not going to have to have a colostomy,” in which wastes are drained into an external container through a surgically created channel.

In fact, according to cancer society figures, the five-year survival rate for colon cancer is 87% if it is detected early, 47% if it is detected after it has spread to other parts of the body. The comparable figures for rectal cancer are 78% and 38%. Only about 15% of patients with colo-rectal cancers require a colostomy.

The warning signs of colo-rectal cancer are: bleeding of the bowels. blood in the stool, or changes in bowel habits. These symptoms can be caused by other ailments, such as hemorrhoids, but the cancer society urges anyone who has them to see a physician.