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Battling colon cancer with humor

Mortimer "Mort" Brown is trying to save lives by talking about something disgusting.

It's a noble cause. But if you're in the midst of breakfast, you may want to set this article aside until you've finished eating.

Brown, 78, is a retired clinical psychologist living near Lutz's Lake Keene. On a Sunday night three years ago, he rose from the toilet and saw that it was full of blood. Brown called his doctor and was told to go to the emergency room.

"The next day," declares Brown, with a hint of indignation, "he had every doctor within a 50-mile radius come in and poke his finger up my butt."

Brown had colorectal cancer. A surgeon removed a section of his colon _ the lower, larger part of the intestine _ and rerouted Brown's colon toward the left side of his lap. There, his wastes spill from his body into a plastic bag.

That unpleasantry is common among colon-cancer survivors. But in his recovery, Brown did something uncommon. He reached out big-time.

Brown, who has a doctorate and has taught part time through much of his career, began reading cancer literature. He discovered that women with breast cancer reported a better "life experience" if they joined a support group. But when Brown asked the American Cancer Society's local office about joining a colon-cancer support group, he learned none existed.

"They said, "If you want to start one, we'll help you.' "

So Brown became the founder and unofficial president of the Semi-Colons, and something of a darling in the Cancer Society. In September, he was among a group of cancer survivors flown to Washington for conferences and lobbying on Capitol Hill.

"He's not ashamed of talking about the disease, and that makes him very valuable to us," said Jolean McPherson, the Florida communications manager of the American Cancer Society.

Colon cancer carries a tragic irony. Experts estimate 90 percent of all colon cancers could be prevented if people knew to undergo the proper tests. Yet most Americans don't do so, and only 37 percent of the cases are caught early.

In Florida, colon cancer is the third most prevalent cancer, an unmentionable topic dealing with bowels and excrement.

Even McPherson, the Cancer Society spokeswoman, admits, "That's a part of the body I prefer to think doesn't even exist."

The Semi-Colons are far past that.

"You would not believe the conversations," said member Mary Floyd with a chuckle. "They're disgusting. We talk about diarrhea. We talk about constipation."

Some Semi-Colon meetings attract 20 people or more. Floyd, a retired mass communications professor, credits Brown.

"He's a very spirited guy. He jokes and laughs a lot, which we need."

Brown assigned Floyd to bring a joke to each meeting.

"I would get stale jokes off the Internet, and people would laugh politely," she said. "When Mort tells a joke, it's in the context."

Brown's reading has included the health benefits of humor. "It stimulates the immune system," he said. "It produces white T-cells that destroy noxious cells."

He told the Semi-Colons last week, "It's helpful in a lot of ways, physically, emotionally and physiologically, from what I've read."

Brown's checkups include blood tests measuring his level of "carcinoembryonic antigen," a substance released into the bloodstream from cells of most colon cancers. A reading above 3.0 is worrisome.

Mort Brown's last reading was 1.3.

_ Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 269-5309 or coatssptimes.com.

Conquering colon cancer

Mort Brown's colon cancer at age 75 might have been preventable if he had been screened for it.

"I have never had a colonoscopy," he said, referring to the most extensive checkup for colon cancer. "Nobody ever recommended I have one. I had never heard of it; I never heard the word."

The American Cancer Society recommends a colonoscopy every 10 years beginning at age 50. The test often costs more than $1,000, but is covered by Medicare for beneficiaries 50 and older. Simpler and cheaper tests, including a $20 check for blood in stool samples, are recommended every five years.

You can help prevent colon cancer by avoiding obesity and excessive drinking, by exercising and by eating a high-fiber, low-fat diet.

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