Get Serious About Colon Cancer

Getting Serious About Colon Cancer ScreeningEarly Detection Through Less-Invasive Testing Means Saving Lives

By Jennifer Walker-Journey 

Bring up the subject of colon cancer and most folks immediately feel uncomfortable. After all, it involves one of the more personal parts of the body and a list of symptoms that can be embarrassing to share – even with one’s doctor.

But consider the alternative. According to the Colon Cancer Alliance, colorectal cancers are the second largest cause of cancer deaths in the United States. Muster up the nerve to visit your doctor and get screened for the disease and you could save your life, said Dr. Joanne Bujnoski, a board-certified radiation oncologist with Emerald Coast Radiation Oncology Center.

“The No. 1 key to know is that colon cancer is curable when it is found early,” she said.

March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and an opportunity for organizations such as the American Cancer Society to stress the importance of regular screenings to prevent the disease. Colorectal cancer, which includes both cancers of the colon and the rectum, is the third most common cancer among men and women. The American Cancer Society estimated that in the United States in 2007, there were 153,760 new cases of colorectal cancer diagnosed in the United States and approximately 52,180 people died from the disease.

“Colon cancer is one of the most preventable cancers,” said Jeremy Morse, executive director of the American Cancer Society Emerald Coast Unit. Screenings are available that can identify problems and find growths – such as polyps – before they become cancer. “If colon cancer is found early, you have a good chance of beating it with treatment,” Morse said.

Screenings include one the following: a yearly fecal occult blood test (FOBT), or fecal immunochemical test (FIT or iFIT); a flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years; a yearly FOBT plus flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years; a double-contrast barium enema every five years; or a colonoscopy every 10 years.

Years of research and technology have made the screening process easier, less invasive and more accurate. Some emerging trends in colorectal cancer include genetic testing; new chemotherapy drugs and methods; chemoprevention – the use of natural or synthetic agents to lower a person’s risk of getting cancer; and drugs that inhibit tumor growth and angiogenesis – a formation of blood vessels as a result of a tumor.

More than 90 percent of all colorectal cancers occur in people ages 50 and older, which is why the American Cancer Society urges people in that age range to be screened regularly.

Individuals who are at higher risk for colorectal cancers and those exhibiting symptoms should consult with their physician for earlier screening. Rick factors include a family history of colorectal cancers, a personal history of colorectal polyps, previously treated colorectal cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease. Obesity, smoking and alcohol use also are risk factors.

Colorectal cancer is difficult to detect as many suffers report no early symptoms. However, possible signs can include changes in bowel habits – such as diarrhea, constipation, narrower stool or blood in stool – as well as bloating, discomfort from gas, cramps, vomiting and the feeling that the bowel does not empty completely. Unexplained weight loss, anemia, constant exhaustion are also identifiers of this disease.

Surgery is the most common treatment for colorectal cancer and most often can cure cancer that has not spread. Chemotherapy or chemotherapy plus radiation is given before or after surgery for patients whose cancer has spread beyond the colon.

“Knowledge is power, especially in the battle against colon cancer,” Morse, of the American Cancer Society, said. Raising public awareness of the dangers, prevention and treatment of colon cancer is challenging, but the American Cancer Society is working hard to make the subject a more comfortable part of everyday conversation, he said. For example, television viewers may be familiar with the American Cancer Society “Get Tested” public service announcement showing an older man in a diner using his mashed potatoes and peas to describe to friends how removing polyps can prevent colon cancer. The commercial is humorous, but the point is clear – getting screened can save your life.

“It’s sad that so many people choose not to be screened,” Dr. Bujnoski said. “They may feel well and think nothing is wrong. But feeling well doesn’t mean you don’t have it.”