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Valdez Star 

Colon cancer the focus of mayor's swim from Allison Point to old Sea Otter

Jeremy O'Neil said the disease devastated his family and wants others to get screened


Tony Gorman photo

Valdez mayor Jeremy O'Neil swam from Allison Point to the Spit last week as a medium to draw attention to colon cancer awareness.

Our new mayor is hoping to bring attention to colon cancer– and is urging anyone with possible symptoms, hereditary factors, or is over the age of 50, to get screened.

To bring awareness of the disease to the forefront, Jeremy O'Neil, age 43, decided to swim across Port Valdez – from Allison Point on Dayville Road to the Kelsey Dock.

Last Wednesday he took the plunge and waded off the rocky shore at Allison Point and an hour-and-a-half later climbed ashore on the Valdez Spit where the now defunct Sea Otter RV Park operated; the strong current forced the slight change of direction in the final destination.

Why colon cancer?

For O'Neil the answer is highly personal.

Both his beloved stepmother and an older brother died from the disease.

"My stepmom passed away in 2014," he said in a brief interview at Allison Point before taking the plunge. "My brother passed away this past August," he said. "He was 44."

O'Neil says he was first screened at age 40 and will continue to be tested on a five-year plan due to the fact that there is a hereditary factor at play in his situation.

The federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends all people be screened at age 50, sooner if there are symptoms or there is a history of colon cancer in your family.

"This is just me saying get know your body the best," O'Neil, who is also administrator for the hospital in Valdez, said. "If something isn't right, don't wait."

He knows this from his own family's experience.

"My brother kinda ignored symptoms," he said.

The CDC website backed up O'Neil's words.

Screening tests are used for those who are at risk for colon cancer who do not have any symptoms. Diagnostic tests are used when symptoms are present.

According to the CDC, the main symptoms to colon cancer are blood in the stool, stomach cramps or pains that do not go away and unexplained weight loss.

"If you have any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor," the CDC says. "They may be caused by something other than cancer. The only way to know what is causing them is to see your doctor."

Colon cancer almost always develops from precancerous polyps (abnormal growths) in the colon or rectum, though not all polyps lead to cancer – and polyps can be present and not cause any symptoms.

"Colorectal polyps and colorectal cancer don't always cause symptoms, especially at first," the CDC said. "Someone could have polyps or colorectal cancer and not know it. That is why getting screened regularly for colorectal cancer is so important."

Alaska's Division of Public Health is part of a multi-state initiative that aims to reach the goal of having 80 percent of its citizens age 50 or older screened for colon cancer in 2018.

Tony Gorman photo

Jeremy O'Neil surrounded by family after his hour-and-a-half swim across Port Valdez.

It also aims to educate the public on the causes of colon cancer, which experts say is the third most common cancer for all Americans, regardless of gender.

Obesity and diet are very closely linked to increased risk of colon cancer, as are lifestyle risk factors such as smoking and lack of exercise.

If you are over age 50, or exhibit any symptoms of the disease, contact your doctor right away.

O'Neil did not ignore the risks in performing the stunt – hypothermia, predators and the water itself are not hospitable to swimmers – and he had a great deal of support, including Josh Miller's water taxi, and friends and supporters in kayaks following him across the port.

He doesn't want you to ignore the risks of ignoring colon cancer screening.


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