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Steve Bartkowski

How football star Steve Bartkowski beat colon cancer

Steve Bartkowski has had many successes in his life. He was a consensus All-American during his senior season at the University of California at Berkeley and was the first overall pick in the 1975 NFL Draft. He later became one of only nine quarterbacks in history to have 30-touchdown passing seasons consecutively. But as he will tell you, the best victory he ever won was in his battle with cancer.

In June 2005,  Bartkowski, then 53, was at a backyard barbecue when a friend told him that he didn’t look well. Bartkowski explained that he had not been himself lately and had noticed some blood in his stool. His friend immediately introduced him to Piedmont Atlanta Hospital gastroenterologist Booker H. Dalton, Jr., who was also a guest at the party. They agreed that Bartkowski would come in first thing Monday morning for a colonoscopy.

After undergoing a colonoscopy, Bartkowski remembers waking up and knowing something was wrong. “I said, ‘Booker, you found something, didn’t you?’” he remembers. “Booker said, ‘Yes sir, I did, and it’s something we need to jump on right away.’ He immediately sent me to Jay Singh, a colorectal surgeon at Piedmont Hospital.”

Bartkowski's treatment plan

Bartkowski was diagnosed with stage II colon cancer. The tumor was too large to operate on, so doctors put him in concurrent chemotherapy and radiation treatment to kill the cancer cells and shrink the tumor. “I had a little bit of a tough time the first two weeks into chemotherapy,” Bartkowski says. “But after that, the four pills in the morning and four pills at night got to be a fairly simple routine. The treatment didn’t really upset my stomach more than just the first week in, and it was just a godsend.”

He admits that the radiation treatment was tougher to take than chemotherapy. “I did it five mornings a week for about six weeks,” he explains. “But it was a necessary hill that I had to climb and I certainly was happy to do whatever I could to ensure I would get through it.”

He credits his football experience for helping him through his fight against cancer. “I think we are all goal-oriented,” Bartkowski says. “Guys are just like that. You need something you can plug into. When there is a well-defined goal at the end of the day, I think we have that collective, internal commitment to it.”

Early detection saves lives

Prevention is crucial and Bartkowski is committed to spreading this message. He was 53 when he was diagnosed with colon cancer, but had never had a colonoscopy. Experts recommend that people begin colon cancer screenings at age 45*, or age 40 if they have a family history. “I knew I needed one and knew I was a couple years overdue, but you know how it is – as guys, we just think that sort of thing happens to other people," he explains.

“Diet is a big part of cancer prevention,” he says. “Certainly exercise, which we all know we need. Early detection is the key to beat this dreaded disease. Pay attention to what your body is telling you. If you have a history of colon cancer, start colonoscopies at 40. If there is no history, 50* should be that magical date. My tumor would have been a polyp at age 50.”

*The American Cancer Society updated its screening guidelines in May 2018, lowering the recommended screening age from 50 to 45.

A polyp is a benign growth on the colon or rectum wall, but can become a cancerous tumor. As a preventative measure, polyps may be removed and tested to determine if they are cancerous. After a successful treatment for colon cancer, Bartkowski says, "I’ve been clean as a whistle ever since." Prevention and early detection is crucial, so talk with your doctor about any symptoms you have and when you should schedule a colonoscopy – it can save your life.

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