Dr. Joseph Greene's family has been ravaged by colorectal cancer. Recalling the members of his family who have had colon cancer, Greene cites more than half a dozen relatives who have succumbed to the disease and many more who have battled it.
"My grandfather died of colon cancer when he was 50, my grandmother died of colon cancer when she was in her 40s. My father died of colon cancer when he was 51. My sister Christine died of colon cancer when she was 40, and my father's sister has lost three children to colon cancer." The list goes on and on. But Greene, 64, is using his family's heart-breaking medical history to educate his children and reduce their changes of developing colon cancer.
"It's all about screening and early detection," says Greene, a professor of finance and economics at Augusta State University and a 22-year colon cancer survivor. "I'm making sure that my son and my daughter never forget about the prevalence of colon cancer in our family and that they take steps geared toward prevention and early detection."
Colorectal cancer, or colon cancer, is the third-leading cause of cancer death for both men and women. In 2005, the American Cancer Society estimates that more than 100,000 Americans will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer and more than 55,000 will die from the disease - a number that could be cut in half if Americans followed ACS recommendations to begin screening at age 50. When colon cancer is detected early, it has a 90 percent survival rate. But fewer than four in 10 (38 percent) are discovered at an early stage.
African-Americans are especially at risk for colon cancer. The population group experiences the highest death rates from colon cancer than any other ethnic or racial group in the United States and is more likely to be diagnosed when the disease is at an advanced stage.
Saved By A Sister's Death
Greene traces his family's history with colon cancer back to his grandparents and to the next generation with four of their seven children dying from the disease - including Greene's father, Charlie. His father's sister has lost three children to colon cancer. The disease has also struck additional members of the family, with Greene's brother, Solomon, diagnosed with colon cancer three years ago when he was in his early 50s. And it has begun to appear on his wife's side of the family. Recently, her twin sister's husband was diagnosed with colon cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy.
Greene himself was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1982. He had no symptoms of the disease and went to his doctor for a colonoscopy only after his sister, Christine, died of colon cancer. To his shock, doctors discovered a pre-cancerous polyp, performed surgery to remove the malignancy and treated him with chemotherapy.
"I often say that my sister saved my life with her death," Greene says. "If she had not died at such a young age, I wouldn't have gotten screened when I did. By the time I developed symptoms, it would have been too late. I, too, would have died from this disease."
Unfortunately, Greene's battle with cancer didn't end there. In 1998, his wife, Barney, noticed a lump under his neck. A follow-up visit to the doctor and a biopsy showed that the swelling was lymphoma. After undergoing surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatment, Greene has been cancer-free for six years.
A Message of Early Detection, Health Lifestyle
Greene is using the lessons from his family's history to keep his two children, son Joseph Jr., 26, and daughter Cathy, 35, from contracting the disease. His daughter is now getting regular screenings, and his son is going to begin screening as well.
Everywhere he goes, Greene preaches a message of early detection and healthy lifestyle. He urges his audiences to be screened regularly for colon cancer, to adopt better eating habits with lots of fruits, vegetables and grains, to exercise more, and to watch their weight.
"In particular, African American families like mine need to be aware of the increased colon cancer risk and to take the steps necessary to prevent the disease or to catch it early," Greene says.
"And it's not a man's disease, like some people think," he adds. "As proved by my family history, colon cancer strikes and kills women equally. I understand that women account for half of all new colon cancers that are detected."
Forging A Strong Bond
He is turning his tragic experiences with cancer into positive outcomes as an ardent volunteer with the American Cancer Society. He is very active in ACS's Relay For Life in Augusta and McDuffie County. Over the past four years, he has raised more than $12,000 for ACS. In addition, he is a motivational speaker at ACS events and was a delegate to the Society's Celebration on the Hill in Washington, D.C. two years ago.
"I'm working with Relay For Life again this year. I'll be serving on a steering committee, and folks know that I'll come calling on them with my hand out for donations," he laughs.
Greene never fails to point out what he calls the bright side of cancer: The strong bond among cancer survivors that stretches across all racial, ethnic and socio-economic boundaries.
"One thing that connects us all is supporting and caring for each other," he says. "We all simply celebrate having come through cancer. Surviving is a wonderful gift."
Cancer history courtesy American Cancer Society.
Joseph Greene, ASU's Customer Service Champion and former Cree Walker Professor of Business Administration
Joseph Greene came to Augusta College as a student in 1972 after completing a tour of duty in the U.S. Army and prior service with Pilgrim Life Insurance Company. After graduating with a degree in business, he obtained a master's degree from the University of Georgia (the only African American in its Risk Management program). He quickly rose through the ranks at Pilgrim Life to become its senior vice president and chief marketing officer as well as a member of the company's board of directors. Although Mr. Greene had been a part-time instructor at this institution, he joined his alma mater full time in 1991 as the Cree Walker Professor of Business Administration. In that role Professor Greene affected the lives of hundreds of ASU students and their families.
Mr. Greene was the first African American to serve on a number of community and state boards in an era when racial tensions were high and integration was in its early stages. He offered a voice of fairness, equity, and reasonableness, and his service not only calmed a troubled state, but gave voice to minority and poor residents of Georgia who had been virtually invisible in local and state governments. Some of these early boards included the McDuffie County Selective Service Draft Board, the State Health Planning Board, and the McDuffie County Board of Education, on which he served for more than 13 years before his appointment by the governor to the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia in 1984. His tenure included terms as vice chair and chair (the second African American to hold these high positions), and he was instrumental in developing strategic planning for the University System, increasing accessibility for minorities at Georgia's public institutions, improving procedures for presidential services, and increasing funding for this institution and the Medical College of Georgia. The governor also appointed him to the Governor's Education Review Commission and the Georgia Post Secondary Board. Much of his participation in determining educational policy for the state of Georgia occurred at critical times in our state's history.
He served on numerous boards including the ASU Foundation. A 20-year member of the Rotary Club of Augusta, he became the organization's first African American president in 2005, a historical precedence which had become familiar ground for him in his lifetime. Mr. Greene's civic responsibility extended well beyond the boardroom, however. He was taught early that citizenship carried responsibilities that included "a fire of idealism, a sense of ethics, and a commitment to do all in your power to improve the quality of life for humanity," (as quoted from his book, From Cottonfields to Board Rooms). He espoused this daily, most notably in mentoring activities with young people through the Boys and Girls Clubs, Norris and Thomson Elementary Schools, and his church, as well as with many students at Augusta State.
Upon his retirement as the Cree Walker professor, Mr. Greene was named as Augusta State's Customer Service Champion in a new role created by the governor and chancellor. In it, he was leading a team of faculty, staff, and students to enhance ASU's commitment to customer service.
Mr. Greene earned many accolades during his life including being named a Distinguished Alumnus of both Augusta State and the University of Georgia, Outstanding Faculty Member at ASU, Business Person of the Year, Man of the Year, and countless others.
Biography courtesy Augusta State University.