“A cook-off saved my life.”
That’s what Brett Gallaway wrote on his Facebook page on October 3, 2012, after reality sank in. He’d just heard from his doctor that a precancerous polyp had been found during his screening colonoscopy. A polyp that, if left in place, could have developed into full-blown colorectal cancer.
“I didn’t even know I had it,” Brett said. “I didn’t have any symptoms.”
Thanks to a raffle he won at a barbecue cook-off, he was able to receive a free colonoscopy and find the cancer early.
Brett’s Facebook page filled with “Likes” and comments. A lot of them were testimonials from friends who had brushes with cancer or had also discovered precancerous polyps just in the nick of time. A lot of them seemed to be like Brett, in their forties or close to 50, with kids, spouses and busy lives. Native Texans, they shared a love of grilling and barbecue.
Some of them had been at the cook-off that day. They knew the organizer, Suzan Mayberry, and flocked to the 2nd Annual Steve Mayberry Annual Cookoff, held in September in honor of her husband who died of colorectal cancer in 2010. Brett was part of the USA Cookteam, a group of buddies who grill for fun and enter competitions across the country. He volunteered to help with the cook-off and grilled all the food available to sell during the event.
Brett wasn’t thrilled when he found out his wife purchased 12 raffle tickets, where the winning prize was a free colonoscopy. “People have been telling me to get a colonoscopy and I didn’t take it seriously at that point,” he said. His family also didn’t have health insurance, so the screening wasn’t his most pressing concern. But when he won the raffle, he took it as a sign. “I figured if I won this, there’s a reason.”
A week and a half later, Brett went in for the screening at the Baylor Surgical Center of Lewisville. Three days afterward, he got the news. “I was actually at work in my office and I let my wife know and then called my dad and then called my wife to tell her again,” Brett said. “I realized had I not gotten a screening done when I did, I wouldn’t have been able to [afford] one.”
Dr. James Cox, the gastroenterologist who saw Brett, said his case was “one of the most satisfying things I have done professionally.” Dr. Cox teamed up with United Surgical Partners to provide the pro bono screening. “Without insurance, he probably would not have come in until he had symptoms and that could have been at an incurable stage,” Dr. Cox said.
That’s why he encourages patients to seek medical advice if they have any symptoms, including abdominal pain, weight loss or bleeding. He often meets patients who dismiss their symptoms and wait until they get worse. “People say I’m bleeding from my hemorrhoids and I say ‘Really, you’ve looked inside and confirmed that?’ When we get in and look, we find a big polyp sitting there.”
For Suzan Mayberry, Brett’s story is the icing on the cake. Twenty-three teams of grillers participated in the cook-off this year and every team donated their winnings to Fight Colorectal Cancer. The event raised $15,000.
“It’s the only thing I can do to stick it back to cancer,” Suzan said. She hopes to use the annual event to raise awareness about colorectal cancer, screenings and Lynch syndrome, an inherited genetic mutation that doctors suspect was the cause of her husband’s colorectal cancer. Lynch syndrome runs in families and increases their chances of developing colorectal cancer and other Lynch-related cancers.
Since the polyp was removed, Brett is a changed man. “When I saw the risk factors [for colorectal cancer] included eating a lot of red meat, I said ‘whoa that’s me.’” In 2011, he had been the champion in the steak category during the Mayberry cook-off. His USA Cookteam were the 2011 world champions in the World Ribeye Steak Cook-off in Magnolia, Arkansas. Now, he cooks for competition and eats a lot less.
“I feel like I’ve won the lottery,” he reflects. “There was someone else’s hand in it. I was given a second lease on life. I’ve just got to figure out how to use my time.”
Fight Colorectal Cancer thanks Bayer Healthcare for their support of the cook-off, as well as Suzan Mayberry and her fantastic planning committee for their leadership and boundless enthusiasm.
If you have questions about the symptoms or risk factors of colorectal cancer, please call the Fight Colorectal Cancer Answer Line at 1-877-427-2111.