3-time olympian shares colon cancer journey to help spread awareness, prevention

Colon cancer is a type of disease that often makes people squirm to talk about it, but colorectal cancer is preventable! An Olympian is opening up the conversation to make people more comfortable and aware of the importance of screening. 

KNOW THE SIGNS: What you need to know about colon cancer

Three-time Olympian Tonja Bailey never imagined she'd suffer from colon cancer, but now she's using her situation as an awareness campaign to help others prevent it. 

Tonja is a track and field superstar! To properly fuel her body as an athlete and later as a coach, she got plenty of exercise and did her best to make healthy food choices, so all that steered her mind away from thoughts of cancer. 

Then the COVID-19 pandemic came along, so she kept putting off her first routine colonoscopy, until her early 50s.

 "My son, they found out that he had a really big 3.5-centimeter polyp when he was 22 at the time," explains Tonja. "So I was like, oh, maybe we need to go ahead and get this colonoscopy that I've been putting off, and then that's when I found out I had an 8-centimeter tumor."


Doctors told her it started as a polyp probably ten years before that, so if she had gotten screened at 45 years old, which is suggested, it might have spared her from ever getting a cancer diagnosis. 

"It was just shocking," says Tonja. "I never could've imagined, I don't eat poorly, I concentrate on those things and did the entire time that I was an athlete, so it's something you have to monitor."

"Obviously, she's in great shape! But, unfortunately, the statistics in this country are 1 in 26 women and 1 in 23 men have a lifetime risk of colorectal cancer. Those numbers are pretty shocking!," says Dr. Curtis Wray, a Professor of Surgery at UTHealth Houston and Memorial Hermann. He explains that colon cancer is also afflicting younger people these days. 

"Those under the age of 50 have seen a steady increase of about 1-2% per year since the mid-1990's," states Dr. Wray. 

MORE: Local doctors are seeing an increase in colon cancer in younger adults

He also says the standard American diet is partially to blame, but also genetics. Luckily, Tonja's treatment plan was successful! 

"Colonoscopy very much could have saved her life," exclaims Dr. Wray.

Now Tonja is speaking out about it, encouraging everyone to consider getting a colonoscopy at 45 if they don't have any risk factors, but earlier if they are at higher risk either by family history or race. 

"We all should have kind of stood up in our seats a little bit when Chadwick Boseman passed away from colorectal cancer, and because at the time I didn't even know anything about it, it was kind of like, whoa, what happened, and it seemed so swift and quick and somebody that we were all familiar with, but I don't think that happened either," says Tonja."So I did some research after I was diagnosed with cancer, and I did realize that yeah, African Americans really need to, probably, I think, need to do five years or more sooner than the average screening time."

MORE: Colon cancer awareness, following the death of actor Chadwick Boseman

Dr. Wray wants everyone to know the warning signs. 

"Change in bowel habits, bleeding, weight loss, just alterations in your bowel habits, or blood in your stool," explains Dr. Wray. 

Reach out to your doctor immediately with any of those red flags. Many times there are no symptoms, which is why screening is so important. Tonja is doing her part to bust the myths with real conversations. 

"People put it off - it's the whole concept of how difficult the cleansing the day before can be, or they think someone is messing around in that area and don't really want that, or they think it sounds gross, but it really wasn't," Tonja says smiling. "After my first colonoscopy, I could've ran a mile."


Her doctors at Memorial Hermann encouraged her to increase fiber in her diet, and now she encourages others to do the same. 

For more information about how colorectal cancer is preventable, click here.