Harry and Jill Connick: Alert the New 50s to Colon Cancer PREVENTION
There’s the nine-year-old Harry Connick Jr. with flexible fingers flying over the keyboard as he performs on stage with a symphony orchestra.
There’s the teenage Harry hanging out and performing in New Orleans French Quarter jazz clubs– with parental approval and encouragement.
Harry, the singer, composer, director and actor with a multi-aged fan base. Harry the crazed, serial killer in the movie Copycat; Harry debuting on Broadway as The Pajama Game lead.
Mardi Gras enthusiasts around the world recognize him as founder of Orpheus, one of the most extravagant parades to roll through the streets of New Orleans. South Louisianans know him as an on-going force in Hurricane Katrina relief and recovery.
The award-winning multi-talented Harry is also a regular guy–a son, husband and father. His behind-the-scenes life is now bringing him center stage in a new role. Connick and Jill, his wife of 25 years, are spotlighting colon cancer awareness, screening and early detection especially for those in the “New 50” age range.
“Cancer's a real drag,” Harry says as his expression transitions from warm and friendly, to engaging and serious. “Jill and I have both, unfortunately, a lot of experience personally with cancer in different ways. I did a movie called Living Proof where I played a doctor who came up with a drug Herceptin. After that movie came out, I can remember two women who came up to me and asked, ‘Should I be on Herceptin? I have breast cancer.’ That hit me, not just because they were asking me, as an actor, for advice, but I recognized that in the throes of that kind of crisis, people are looking for any kind of answers.”
The Connicks are taking a lead in colon cancer awareness as spokespersons for Cologuard, a noninvasive colon cancer screening test that can be done in the home. They know that the right diagnosis, the right treatment–and more importantly, early detection –can make the difference between life and death.
“I've been through the consequences of cancer with people who I love,” Harry explains, acknowledging that the loss of his mother to ovarian cancer when he was just entering his teens, affected him deeply. “Jill has been through it herself,” he continues, turning toward his wife, now breast cancer-free. “If we're able to give anyone one degree of comfort or information, we feel responsible and compelled to do that.”
“We love doing an awareness campaign,” Harry says. “What’s the most gratifying, and Jill and I talk about this a lot, is meeting people who are affected in various ways, whether it’s the stage-4 cancer survivor we just met a few weeks ago, a stage-4 cancer patient or somebody who's been recently diagnosed. We want to be able to share what we know to help people get out and get screened.”
When detected early, colon cancer has a high survival rate. Up until recently however, an invasive colonoscopy was the only screening method available. It’s a test that no one readily signs up for because of the dreadful day-before prep. The new do-it-yourself Cologuard test may rule out the need for a colonoscopy for low or average risk patients.
With encouragement and perhaps a little persistence from Jill, Harry did not waste a minute when the test arrived at his doorstep. “I'm the kind of person that, even if the result comes back positive, I'm going to do what I have to do, which in this case would be go back to my doctor and get a colonoscopy,” he says. “For a person like me who's over 50 and an average risk, Cologuard is the choice to make. I was very fortunate because my results were negative, but I'm glad I did it. Now I can have peace of mind for the next three years.”
Jill is passionate about cancer screening. “I never miss an appointment for a breast screening, she says. “Because I have dense breasts, I have regular sonograms and that’s where my cancer showed up.”
Her treatment regime included radiation therapy and five years of Tamoxifen as medical therapy. Although drug therapy can be rough, the results can be favorable. “Cancer and cancer treatment is toxic,” Jill emphasizes. “My advice to all those facing breast cancer – or any other cancer – is to surround yourself with family and friends. Just keep life as normal as possible. Have a positive outlook. Listen to your doctors and do what they say.”
And be thankful when things go right.
“Every time I look at Jill, every time I flick this little ring on my finger, that's something special to me,” Harry smiles. “As opposed to big celebrations, we're more into daily reminders of how thankful we are.”
In addition to promoting colon cancer awareness, the couple is emphasizing that being 50 isn’t what it used to be. They are encouraging others in their generation to take time for themselves, rethink priorities and reinvest in health.
What do the new 50s do differently than their parents did at the same age?
“Eat healthier,” Jill states. “I love salads. I eat fish, chicken, a lot of vegetables. I'll cook a lot and use olive oil. I love food like that.”
“She's a great cook, too,” Harry adds. “Jill has an amazing diet that we follow. I also think that access to better quality, more natural foods is becoming more widespread. We love to eat well with the occasional splurge. It’s hard to resist a fried-oyster po-boy when I come home to New Orleans." ■
Visit the American Cancer Society website at www.cancer.org or consult your physician for more information about colon cancer.