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Eartha Kitt: Colon Cancer Even with Low Risk

Eartha KittSometimes you do everything right and you still die from a disease, even though you have none of the known lifestyle risk factors. When Eartha Kitt died at age 81 of colon cancer, her daughter said that, "she ate huge amounts of vegetables and their house in Beverly Hills had a huge vegetable garden as well as an aviary with chickens and roosters. She despised processed and refined foods and encouraged friends to eat only local produce. Even when she lived in a New York City apartment, she always had a little window garden growing baby lettuces and herbs."  She was never overweight, exercised regularly and always was physically fit. I did find pictures of her smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol.  These are known carcinnogens, but I do not know if she did them regularly. 
 
Her whole life was an example of a great lady who tried to do everything right (except possibly smoking and drinking).  She had such a difficult childhood that it is amazing that she grew up to become a famous actress, singer, dancer, comedian and cabaret and television star.  She won two Emmys and two Grammys, was nominated for several Tonys, sold millions of records with hits such as 'Let's Do It', 'Under the Bridges of Paris' and 'Santa Baby', and starred in several Hollywood films.  She was also a staunch defender of social justice, minorities and gay rights. 
 


 

Her Early Life
She spent most of her life not knowing where or when she was born.  In 1997 at age 70, she told students at historically black Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina, that she didn't know when she was born.  The students responded by finding her birth certificate that had the name of her father crossed out.  Her mother, of Cherokee and African American descent, was a servant on a cotton plantation near Orangeburg, South Carolina and was raped by a son of the owner.   When Eartha was eight, her mother married a man who forced her to send her mixed-race, light skinned child to live with relatives.  Her mother died soon afterwards and she was sent to New York City to live with an aunt named Mamie Kitt.  Her musical talent was noticed immediately and she was accepted at the High School of Performing Arts, but dropped out because of lack of money so she had to go to work.  At age 16, she was accepted by the traveling Katherine Dunham Performance Troupe and ended up with them in Paris. 
 
Some of the Men in her Life
In the early 1950s Orson Welles cast her in his Paris stage production of "Faust" and they started a love affair.  He called her: "the most exciting woman in the world".   Later, she spent a lot of time with Revlon founder Charles Revson, who lavished her with gifts and named cosmetics after her; and with banking heir John Barry Ryan III.  In 1960, she married Bill McDonald, a wounded Viet Nam veteran, gave birth to her only daughter and divorced him afterwards. 
 


 

Social Activist
At a White house luncheon in 1968, she spoke to Lady Bird Johnson about the Vietnam War, saying, "You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot." Mrs. Johnson burst into tears.  The government responded by tapping her phone lines, having Secret Service agents follow her and issuing a CIA report that called her "a sadistic nymphomaniac."   She spent her next ten years performing mostly in Europe and Asia.  In 1974, she toured South Africa with a racially integrated cast and raised money for black schools.  In 1978, at age 51, she was welcomed back to the United States by President Carter and received a Tony Award for her starring role in "Timbuktu".  She was a strong advocate for civil rights and gay rights and was an early supporter of same-sex marriage, saying, "I am a rejected, oppressed person, and so I understand them, as best as I can, even though I am a heterosexual."
 


 

Diagnosed with Colon Cancer at Age 80
According to her daughter, she felt she was so healthy that she did not need medical checkups and never had a routine colonoscopy.  At age 80 she developed pain in her hands which was diagnosed as a pinched nerve caused by carpal tunnel syndrome from doing lots of needlepoint.  She was referred to a rheumatologist who ordered routine blood tests that showed that she was anemic from severe iron deficiency.  Since a common cause of iron deficiency is bleeding, she had a colonoscopy that found the colon cancer. 
 
Risk Factors for Colon Cancer
Lifestyle risk factors for colon cancer include: 
• a diet high in red meats (beef, pork, lamb and any other mammals) and processed meats (hot dogs, sausage, bacon, luncheon meats)  
• a diet high in foods cooked at high temperatures and without water (frying, broiling, grilling) 
• a diet low in plants: vegetables, fruits, whole grains and other high-fiber foods (fiber supplements have not been shown to prevent colon cancer) 
• not exercising 
• being overweight
• having a big belly 
• smoking 
• drinking alcohol
• having high blood sugar levels
 
Colon cancer risk factors that you cannot change include: 
• aging 
• having a personal or family history of colo-rectal cancer or polyps
• having an inflammatory intestinal or colon disease such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease 
• being African-American
• having had excessive exposure to X rays or radiation therapy for any cancer 
 
Presenting symptoms for colon cancer can be bleeding in the stool or iron deficiency.  Having polyps in your colon increases your chances of developing colon cancer, so if you have had even one polyp, you need to be checked for colon cancer regularly. 
 
January 17, 1927 - December 21, 2008


 

July 31st, 2016
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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