Robin Gibb's Tragedy: Colon Cancer Is Easily Preventable

Bee Gees singer Robin Gibb, 62, died on Sunday after a harrowing battle with colon cancer that spread to his liver. Despite aggressive chemotherapy and two emergency operations in the past two months, the disco star—remembered for hit songs from “Stayin’ Alive” and “Saturday Night Fever”—developed brain swelling due to liver failure, and pneumonia. He slipped into a coma, waking briefly on April 21 after his family spent days singing to him at his bedside.

What makes the six-time Grammy winner’s death especially tragic is that colon cancer is largely preventable with regular screening. In fact, it’s the only form of cancer that can be both detected AND treated with a single screening test.

Here’s a look at the medical story behind Gibb’s passing, along with important information about a colon cancer test that saves lives.

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A Silent Killer

Also known as colorectal cancer, colon cancer typically doesn’t have any early warning signs. As happened with Gibb, many patients aren’t diagnosed until the disease spreads to other organs (in his case, the disease had spread to the liver, indicating stage 4 of the disease, which is often rapidly fatal even with aggressive treatment).

Colon cancer affects the large intestines (colon) and can extend to the last few inches called the rectum. The disease develops slowly, with more than 95 percent of cases starting as polyps, some of which (adenomas) can become cancerous if they aren’t found and removed. Typically it can take 10 years or longer for these polyps to morph into cancer.

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Preventable but Neglected

This year, about 103,000 Americans will be diagnosed with colon cancer. Ranked as the second leading cause of cancer death, it’s expected to kill more than 50,000 American men and women this year. Yet most of these deaths are preventable with a simple test, according to the American Cancer Society.

The problem is that fewer than half of the Americans who need screening—those aged 50 or older—get the recommended tests, such as a colonoscopy. One study found that a key factor is that doctors neglect to recommend the lifesaving exam, while patients’ embarrassment, anxiety, or lack of health insurance can also be issues.

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The Test That Finds and Treats Colon Cancer

While there are several ways to check for colon cancer, the gold standard for early detection is a colonoscopy. It’s the only cancer detection test that also prevents the disease by allowing doctors to find polyps and, during the same test, remove them before they turn into cancer.

To administer the test, a doctor uses a thin, flexible tube (called a colonoscope) with a small video camera attached to one end to examine the six-foot long colon. If suspicious growths are found, they can be removed during the test for biopsy. A similar test called sigmoidoscopy only checks one-third of the colon, so it can miss precancerous growths or cancer in the area not examined.

Many people put off having this lifesaving test because they dread the preparation, which typically involves eating a diet of clear food and taking laxatives for two days to clean out the colon. Yet this relatively minor inconvenience could save many lives; studies show that colonoscopy is 60 to 90 percent effective at preventing a killer disease. The test itself is painless, because colonoscopy patients receive sedatives during the procedure. 

Who Is At Risk for Colon Cancer?

Ninety percent of colon cancer cases occur in people over age 50, which is why screening is recommended every 10 years, starting at age 50. People with a family history of the disease are usually advised to start screening at a younger age and have more frequent testing. Other risk factors include diabetes, smoking, obesity, poor diet, and a "couch potato" lifestyle.

There’s also emerging evidence that heavy drinking raises risk in men and may also increase it in women. Gibb, however, didn’t drink and had adopted a vegan diet, highlighting the importance of screening to prevent the disease—or catch it in the early, highly treatable stages, even if you have no other risk factors other than your age.

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What Can You Do to Avoid Colon Cancer?

Simple changes in your daily habits are the best protection against this killer disease. A recent study by World Cancer Research Fund and American Institute for Cancer Research (one of the most comprehensive ever conducted) reported that if we ate more fiber, performed moderate exercise, and stayed lean, about 45 percent of colon cancer cases would be prevented. That's about 64,000 cases a year.

The researchers also advise a primarily plant-based diet, including fiber-rich vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans. Evidence from 24 recent studies strongly link eating both red and processed meat to higher risk for colon cancer, prompting the AICR to advise limiting these foods to 18 ounces or fewer per week. Processed meats (such as bacon, hot dogs, and sandwich meat) are particularly dangerous, doubling risk, compared to eating red meat alone, according to the AICR researchers.

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