Sept. 14, 2022 — Actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney are taking different roles as they star in a new campaign to raise awareness of the importance of colorectal cancer screening.
Using a bit of humor to highlight a very serious issue, the two Hollywood stars filmed their own colonoscopy. Importantly, both Reynolds and McElhenney are 45, the new age at which many leading medical organizations are now recommending average-risk men have their first colonoscopy.
While filming the Lead From Behind campaign, Reynolds found that doctors were identifying and removing a polyp, or precancerous lesion, that over time could have progressed to something more serious. McElhenny’s doctor found three polyps and removed them as well. The results underscore the importance of screening men at average risk of colorectal cancer, including younger men.
Gastroenterologists applaud Reynolds and McElhenney for using their fame to show how easy and life-saving colonoscopy can be.
“I thought Ryan and Rob did a fantastic job,” said David A. Johnson, MD, a gastroenterologist in private practice in Norfolk, VA, who has worked on national colorectal cancer guidelines for the past 20 years.
A key takeaway message is that colonoscopy “is really the best screening test because they both had polyps,” Johnson says. The premise of screening is to catch potential problems before they cause cancer, he says.
Rajesh N. Keswani, MD agrees on the importance of the campaign. “Overall, the message was incredibly effective. Everyone involved, from the celebrities to the clinicians, did a great job making sure all the important points were addressed.”
“They don’t just say colonoscopy is easy, they prove it by showing patients how to laugh and eat after the procedure,” says Keswani, gastroenterologist and medical director for quality and integration at Northwestern Medicine Digestive Health Center in Chicago.
Reynolds, star of the “Deadpool” movies, and McElhenney, creator and lead actor of the TV show “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” let their comedic skills shine, says Jessica Bernica, MD, assistant professor of medicine-gastroenterology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
“I think this video is great. Not only does it convey a very powerful message about the importance of colon cancer screening, but what’s not amusing about seeing Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney come out of anesthesia?” she says.
Bernica praised the campaign for highlighting the younger recommended age for colonoscopy, the procedure’s ability to detect and remove precancerous polyps, and that it’s a “simple and routine procedure that’s nothing to fear.”
“I would also like to highlight that both Ryan and Rob had excellent bowel preparation, a critical component to an effective screening colonoscopy.”
The “Couric Effect”
Reynolds and McElhenny may have made their own twist, but they’re not the first celebrities to use their platform to raise awareness about colon cancer.
“It really goes back to when Katie Couric did that after she lost her husband Jay Monahan,” says Johnson. The impact on colonoscopy screening was so dramatic it’s called the Couric effect.
There is a large body of data showing that similar campaigns can improve colon cancer screening rates, particularly when Couric televised her colonoscopy to effectively promote colon cancer screening, Keswani said.
Will Smith also shared an “incredibly detailed documentary about his journey through colonoscopy” after his 50th birthday, Johnson says. in the I vlogged my colonoscopy, Smith learns from his doctor that they found a polyp in his appendix, a sac that connects the small intestine to the large intestine. The video on YouTube has been viewed more than 4 million times.
“Then there was Chadwick Boseman. He had colon cancer very early at age 43, and the world grappled with the unexpected loss,” Johnson says of the Black Panther Star, who died from the disease.
The COVID Effect
The timing of the Lead From Behind campaign is also critical, Johnson said, as the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted many people to delay health screenings, including colonoscopies. As a result, he says, “we’re seeing an increase in colon cancer.”
“This is a good wake-up call that we should be proactive,” he says.
Johnson pointed out that home colon cancer tests can detect when someone already has cancer. In contrast, colonoscopy is about early detection to prevent cancer, although biopsies taken during a colonoscopy can also be used for detection.
stimulate a conversation
The attention celebrities can bring to colon cancer can help start conversations. “This type of campaign is a great way to raise awareness and normalize an aspect of healthcare that many people probably wouldn’t speak openly about,” says Bernica.
Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in the US and is preventable, but according to the most recently reported statistics from the National Institutes of Health in 2019, only about 67% of adults ages 50 to 75 had received screening, says Bernica. “Hopefully that kind of message can be the impetus to get those who haven’t been verified to do so.”
For Johnson, celebrities like Reynolds and McElhenney stepping out of the ordinary to highlight an important public health message are more than just celebrities. “It really turns a star into a superstar,” he says.