Screening tests like a mammogram detect early cancer, but a colonoscopy finds and, importantly, also removes pre-cancer. Despite this value, one in three Americans of appropriate age skip the simple test.
“Colon cancer is common and preventable,” said Marianne Ritchie ’80, MD, clinical associate professor of gastroenterology and hepatology at Jefferson University Hospitals. “This is the message that I am meant to share. This is what I am meant to do.”
Dr. Ritchie started the Blue Lights Campaign five years ago to educate the public about colon cancer and encourage them to go for screenings. She works with representatives from many of Philadelphia’s signature buildings and structures—such as PECO, FMC, the Cira Centre, Liberty Place, the Kimmel Center, the Franklin Institute, Lincoln Financial Field, Boathouse Row and the Benjamin Franklin Bridge—to be lit up blue from March 5-11 in honor of National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month.
Her campaign has spread beyond Philly as well. Courthouses and county buildings across Pennsylvania, and even the State Capitol in Harrisburg, shine blue.
The process takes at least six months of working with government leaders and calling, emailing and even knocking on doors of companies and institutions. Then, this week, Dr. Ritchie spends hours driving from building to building—frequently climbing to rooftops and balconies—trying to take the perfect photos to further help spread the word.
“It’s a labor of love,” she said, noting colon cancer ranks as the No. 2 cause of cancer death and more people die from colon cancer than breast cancer. “Screening leads to prevention and allows for early detection when the cancer is more likely curable.”
Dr. Ritchie emphasized that colon cancer doesn’t just affect men, and the rates are equal between the sexes. She also stressed that the colonoscopy prep isn’t as bad as its reputation, and for the actual test itself, the patient is sedated and sleeps through the exam.
“All things considered, one day of inconvenience is a lot better than surgery and chemotherapy,” said Dr. Ritchie, director of Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center Colon Cancer Screening/Outreach. “It’s a test that could save your life.”
After years of performing colonoscopies and preventing colon cancer, Dr. Ritchie knows the importance of the test, and hearing all the “beautiful stories of courage and appreciation” is one of her favorite parts of the Blue Lights Campaign. For example, a few months ago, she walked into a Center City building with outside lighting and asked the woman at the front desk if she could speak to the manager.
“When she heard the request for blue lights for colon cancer, she jumped up and said, ‘My mother is three years strong. I will do anything I can to help you,’” Dr. Ritchie recalled. “She was so grateful that her mother had treatment and is doing well that she wanted to shout about it. She led me to the manager, and the rest is history. As I left the building, she gave me a big hug. It was hard to hold back the tears. They’re the people who move me.”