November 14, 2019
4 min read

‘Everyone needs to see this’: Will Smith gets a colonoscopy

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Sophie Balzora
Sophie Balzora
Darrell Gray
Darrell Gray

In West Philadelphia, born and raised, in the endo suite is where Will Smith spent most of his day in August as he underwent his first colonoscopy. Smith, who turned 50 last year, was getting screened for colorectal cancer for the first time, but, unlike most people, decided to share his experience by posting a vlog on his YouTube page.

In the video, Smith takes viewers through the entire process of successfully completing a colonoscopy as he went through some questions about the procedure with his doctor, Ala Stanford, MD, to the morning of — and aftermath of the colonoscopy bowel prep — and the post-procedure recovery period.

After Smith shared his experience, the video made its way into GI circles on social media.

“My initial reaction was, ‘Wow! Everyone needs to see this,” Darrell Gray II, MD, MPH, FACG, of The Ohio State University College of Medicine, told Healio Gastroenterology and Liver Disease. Gray grew up as a Will Smith fan. Among his first cassette tapes was one by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince.

“I’ve been a fan for a long time,” he said. “I mean, ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.’ Who wasn’t a fan? It’s good to see him using his celebrity to promote colorectal cancer screening.”

It has been nearly 20 years since Katie Couric underwent a colonoscopy on television and sparked an increase in colorectal screening dubbed “the Katie Couric effect.”

Normalizing the procedure

Although it is too early to see how Smith’s vlog will impact screening rates, Sophie Balzora, MD, FACG, of the NYU School of Medicine, told Healio Gastroenterology and Liver Disease it could be incredibly important in the African American community, which experiences higher CRC incidence and mortality than white patients.

“First of all, seeing him at age 50 is crazy, but seeing him go through something that carries a huge stigma and that people are so afraid of is amazing,” she said. “Seeing someone who looks like you get something done that you could potentially be scared of, from beginning to end is incredibly impactful.”

Whether he realizes it or not, Balzora said Smith’s actions in the video — asking questions and sharing his concerns, even in a humorous way — helped normalize the procedure.

“I think it will encourage [others] to do the same or at least have that conversation with their family or be a little bit more comfortable talking about it with their doctor,” Balzora said. “Any of those small baby steps to get them closer to screening, we’re all for it.”

As he explains the process of preparing for his colonoscopy, Gray said Smith brings up some pretty common questions that patients have about the procedure. He also addresses some of the stigma.

“Certainly, there’s such a thing as machismo. It’s common when I go into the community for some men to say, ‘I don’t want anything up my behind.’” Gray said. “I suspect that Will Smith’s video will help other men and particularly, African American men to overcome that barrier. Whether it’s fear of undergoing a colonoscopy or stigma of having a camera in your rectum and in your colon.”

Highlighting diversity in GI

Smith’s colonoscopy gives the GI community a chance to highlight another important effort, the #DiversityinGI campaign, which Balzora and Gray are both spearheaded. The American College of Gastroenterology launched the social media campaign earlier this year to promote inclusion in gastroenterology and motivate people from diverse backgrounds to pursue careers in the field.

“There’s representation there,” Balzora said. “He has a black female physician that he’s working with. ... It’s fantastic to see a black man who’s 50 getting his colonoscopy, doing what he has to do and encouraging others to do it. All those things are so in line what we are trying to achieve with getting more people screened.”

Gray said the video is another tool physicians can use to communicate with patients and convey the importance of staying up to date with CRC screenings.

“There’s definitely groups of patients that I’m going to be sharing this video with, particularly if they’re a little hesitant about undergoing a colonoscopy or any other form of colorectal cancer screening,” he said. “This may help influence them to get the necessary screening.”

In the video, Smith learns that he had to get a precancerous polyp removed during his colonoscopy and that he will have to undergo colonoscopy again for surveillance. He said he was not expecting that to happen, but it was important for him to be able to share the experience with the world, before ending with a sentiment that Gray said he agrees with wholeheartedly.

“Health is our greatest wealth,” Smith said. by Alex Young