Nona Wills has an important story to tell about colon cancer and how getting a colonoscopy could save your life. She has gained a bit of notoriety sharing her story — she was part of a major ad campaign for the Maine Colorectal Cancer Control Program.

The campaign included a blown up picture of Nona on the back of Metro buses. She told me that friends would call her up and exclaim, “Nona, I just saw you up on Munjoy Hill or on Congress Street! I guess it’s quite fitting that my face was on the rear end of a bus!”

Here’s her story.

Nona Wills, colon cancer

Nona Wills got an unusual 50th birthday present three years ago from her family doctor — an appointment for her first-ever colonoscopy. It was a gift that saved her life. The colonoscopy revealed that Nona had colon cancer. “I had no family history or other risk factors,” says Nona. “It just came out of the blue.”

Colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths among women, after lung and breast cancer. In the entire population in Maine, it is the second leading cause of all cancer deaths. While men and women share many risk factors, some are unique to women.

Colorectal cancer risks factors for women include:

  • Menopause
  • History of breast cancer
  • History of uterine cancer

Risk factors shared by women and men include:

  • Age
  • Family history of colon cancer or polyps
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • High fat or low fiber diet

Regular screenings, like the colonoscopy Nona had, are recommended for people age 50 and older. That’s because colorectal cancer is most common after 50, and the risk increases with age.

However, according to the National Women’s Health Report Card, the screening rates for colorectal cancer among women lag far behind screening for both breast and cervical cancers.

Here in Maine, screening rates are especially low among people who don’t have health insurance or don’t have regular access to a health care provider.

In an effort to reduce the number of people who are diagnosed with, or die from colorectal cancer, the Maine CDC provides no-cost screenings for Mainers who either don’t have insurance or do, but their benefits don’t cover colonoscopies.

Getting a colonoscopy may not be anyone’s idea of fun, but if it means detecting cancer in its earliest stages or finding and removing a polyp that could become cancer, wouldn’t it be worth it?

When I had my first colonoscopy, the gastroenterologist found one of those pre-cancerous polyps. He practically jumped up and down with joy. “This is the reason we do these procedures, Diane,” he exclaimed. “That polyp could easily have turned into cancer and you might never have known until it was too late.”

The thing about colorectal cancer is that usually, there are no symptoms in the early, more treatable stages. If there are, they may be easily mistaken for other problems.

Possible symptoms in women include:

  • Rectal bleeding
  • Blood in the stool (red, black, or very dark)
  • Change in bowel movements, especially in shape of the stool
  • Discomfort or urge to move bowels when there is no need
  • Cramping in lower abdomen or frequent gas pains
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Extreme fatigue

In hindsight, Nona realized she had some of those symptoms in the weeks before her colonoscopy. “At my doctor’s visit, I got weighed. I’d lost eight pounds, but I hadn’t done anything different. I was also having some bowel issues. I wasn’t constipated, I just had difficulty going. My stools got skinny — what they call ‘pencil stools’- and they had an odd consistency and color. I wasn’t all that worried, though.”

When she got the diagnosis, Nona’s attitude was, “Give me a list and tell me what I need to do.” A few weeks later, she had surgery to remove her cancer and a foot of her colon. Because the cancer had spread to nearby lymph nodes, she also had many weeks of chemotherapy.

About a year after she finished her chemo, she heard about ScreenME, a new initiative of the Maine Colorectal Cancer Control Program, which spreads the word about colorectal cancer screening by sharing personal stories in TV and radio ads, posters, and on the ScreenME website. Nona knew right away she wanted to participate. “I’m a classic case of why it’s important to have a colonoscopy. People need to hear my story. I’m lucky because I lived to tell the tale.”

It’s possible that because of Nona, someone else may also live to tell their story. She is scheduled for a checkup in a couple weeks. Let’s say “thank you” by wishing her well.

If you would like to find out if you or a loved one is eligible for a colonoscopy at no cost, call the Colon Screening Hotline at 1-877-320-6800.