How a Track Star’s Unexpected Diagnosis Made Her an Advocate for Colon Cancer Screening

If reducing your risk for colon cancer were an Olympic sport, Tonja Buford-Bailey could have won a medal. The 52-year-old former track star, who earned bronze for the 400-meter hurdles in the 1996 Olympics and now coaches other elite athletes, is in excellent physical shape. She drinks plenty of water. She’s never smoked. She eats all the right things — and almost none of the wrong things, like sugar, processed foods or red meat.

She still got cancer. Luckily, she caught it early enough that it could be surgically removed without requiring chemotherapy, and now her health is back on track. But it was a wake-up call that she wishes she’d heard earlier.

Colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in both men and women in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society.

“When I started hearing the stats — that this is the third leading cancer killer — I was shocked. I would have started getting colonoscopies sooner if I had known,” she says. “In our community, we have to be more open about things that are going on with our health. But the colon is a part of our body that we don’t go around talking about.”

Now she does. Buford-Bailey turned 50 in 2020, at the height of the pandemic, when she wasn’t eager to go to the hospital for a routine colon cancer screening. Then her son, now 22, had some gastrointestinal issues. His doctor recommended a colonoscopy, which revealed a large juvenile polyp. It was removed and her son was fine, but it spurred Buford-Bailey to schedule her own colonoscopy in 2022.

The procedure showed that she had a tumor the size of an orange in her right colon. It was cancerous, but the cancer had not yet spread to other organs. That was lucky, says Curtis Wray, MD, a professor of surgery at UTHealth Houston and an affiliated surgical oncologist at Memorial Hermann.

“It was a very large mass, but thankfully it was found at an early, very treatable stage,” says Dr. Wray. He removed about a third of Buford-Bailey’s colon, but he was able to reattach the remaining colon so she didn’t need a colostomy.

It could have been much worse. In about 20 percent of colorectal cancer patients, the disease has already metastasized, or spread to other parts of the body, by the time they are first diagnosed, according to a review published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“Usually those patients aren’t candidates for surgery. Typically, we can only use chemotherapy, and the prognosis is nowhere near as good,” says Dr. Wray. “That’s the reasoning behind an early colonoscopy, to try to find this when it’s still easily treatable. Colon cancer usually doesn’t cause symptoms until it’s really advanced, especially if it’s on the right side of the colon, where Tonja’s was.”

In fact, new screening guidelines recommend that Americans begin undergoing routine colonoscopies at age 45 — five years earlier than the previous recommendation. The change came after doctors noticed a steady increase in colon cancer rates among people younger than 50 in recent years, Dr. Wray says.

Colorectal cancer also disproportionately affects the Black community. African-Americans are about 20 percent more likely to get colorectal cancer and about 40 percent more likely to die from it than most other groups, according to the American Cancer Society.

Buford-Bailey, who is Black, wasn’t aware of those numbers until after her diagnosis — and she didn’t realize that her father had also had a brush with colon cancer. Many years ago, doctors found so many precancerous polyps during his routine colonoscopy that they had to remove part of his colon to get them all.

“He says he told me this when I was younger, but I think I didn’t realize how serious that was, so I didn’t remember it,” she says. “Now I encourage people, if there’s any family history at all, to get screened.”

Although colon cancer can be deadly, it’s very treatable if caught early, as Buford-Bailey’s was, and easily preventable if caught in the precancerous polyp stage, like her son’s.

“You don’t want to wait for symptoms. Once that happens, you’re in big trouble. This is a very sneaky disease,” she says. “I know there are people who don’t want to do a colonoscopy or the prep for it. There’s this perception that it’s not that fun, but I was actually surprised that it wasn’t that bad at all. I’d do the prep 100 days in a row if it meant taking care of this cancer before having to remove part of my colon. That was a shock. You’re walking around feeling perfectly healthy and then all of a sudden you’re having major surgery.”

Buford-Bailey lives in Austin, where she was a track and field coach at The University of Texas and now runs the Buford Bailey Track Club for Olympic-level sprinters and hurdlers. When she heard about Dr. Wray’s track record, she decided to make the trek to Houston for her surgery.

“I didn’t mind going to Houston because he’s that good,” she says. “I wanted to go where I knew I’d get great care, and he is amazing.” 

Now Buford-Bailey undergoes CT scans every three months and colonoscopies every six months to be sure any future polyps are caught before they become cancerous.

“Her situation is a little unusual, but it shows that you can be doing everything right and still get colon cancer,” says Dr. Wray. “One of the biggest risk factors is a history of colon cancer or high-risk polyps in someone closely related to you, and there’s not much you can do about that, other than to get screened. It’s just one of those things that, with better awareness and better access to care, hopefully we’ll be able to detect it at the polyp stage instead of a later stage. And that will make a big impact on outcomes for this disease.”

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Ali Vise