WASHINGTON – Gerome Samuel knew that he should have gotten an examination for colon cancer after he turned 50, but he didn’t. “I just kept putting it off, and putting it off and putting it off,” said Samuel, 58, a retired Washington-area construction worker, husband and father of two.

Four weeks ago, at the insistence of his primary care physician, and more than a year after being diagnosed with prostate and throat cancer, Samuel finally scheduled a colonoscopy at Howard University Hospital.

It was a good thing he did.

Dr. Duane Smoot, chief of the Gastroenterology Division of Howard University Cancer Center, discovered and removed a large polyp with early cancer, “one of the largest I have ever taken out,” he said.

“He was fortunate,” Dr. Smoot added. “We caught it in time before it had spread. Otherwise, we’re talking about surgery and chemotherapy.”

Unfortunately, millions of Americans aren’t screened early enough for the disease, the third most diagnosed cancer in men and women. Consequently, nearly 50,000 people, nearly half of those diagnosed annually with colorectal cancer, die from the disease each year. Additionally, African Americans have the highest mortality rates for colorectal cancer.

Early screening could change that number, experts say. The survival rate for colorectal cancer is 90 percent, but only when the disease is detected early, Smoot said.

The American Cancer Society recommends colonoscopies for all adults over 50, but too often people don’t follow those guidelines, either because of income or lack of information.

To help, Howard University Cancer Center, under grants from the District of Columbia Department of Health and the DC Cancer Consortium, is offering free colon cancer screening to District of Columbia residents between the ages of 50 and 64.

The free exams are for those who are uninsured or whose insurance does not cover the procedure. The Center will be focusing on adults in Wards 4, 7 and 8, but all D.C. residents are welcome.

The Cancer Center will also be providing information to all Washington-area residents, regardless of age or insurance status, on colorectal cancer and the need for early detection.

Samuel says he has certainly learned the importance of early screening. “I tell everybody, ‘Don’t put it off,’” he said. “It probably saved my life. If they hadn’t found it in me when they did, it could have spread to my colon and just eaten me alive.”

For more information or to schedule an appointment for an examination, call 202-865-7741.