Colorectal Cancer: Preventable, Treatable, Beatable
Here are a few facts about colon cancer: It is the second deadliest form of cancer. More than 60,000 Americans die from it every year. It is an equal opportunity killer, affecting men and women in similar numbers. More than 97 percent of those affected have no risk factors and no prior history of the cancer. Want to know something else about colon cancer? People don’t have to get it.
“With proper screening, the vast majority of colon cancers can be prevented or detected in their earliest, most curable stages,” said Steven Proshan, M.D., AAMC colon and rectal surgeon.
Dr. Proshan pointed out that a colonoscopy, the most effective screening tool for colon cancer, can detect precancerous polyps (grape-like growths on the lining of the colon and rectum). During a colonoscopy a physician uses a probing device to examine the colon for these growths, which then can be removed.
“It’s vitally important to raise awareness, because the biggest successes—all the people we’ve been able to help before they develop cancer—don’t always get noticed,” said Dr. Proshan.
Dr. Proshan’s patient Toni Borcz was one of the lucky ones. A few years ago, she sought help from Dr. Proshan for another condition. He suggested that since she was just over fifty she should have a colonoscopy.
“I hadn’t made it a priority because you never think anything will happen to you,” said Ms. Borcz. “But when I had the procedure, Dr. Proshan removed three polyps and one of them was cancerous. It was really scary.”
Fortunately Ms. Borcz’s treatment was successful. Her regular follow-ups show her to be cancer-free and now she is an advocate for screening.
“I’ve made both my brothers go for screening and one of them had polyps removed, too. People [avoid screening] because they fear the unknown, but the procedure is only slightly uncomfortable,” said Ms. Borcz. “And being able to stay active and healthy makes it well worth it.”
Michael Epstein, M.D., an AAMC gastroenterologist, concurred. “A colonoscopy is the only test we have that can truly detect cancer before it develops,” said Dr. Epstein. “And new methods of preparation and sedation have made the test easier and more comfortable.”
“We can’t emphasize this enough—go for prevention rather than detection.”
— Dr. Calabrese
Other screening tools for colorectal cancer are being developed, including a noninvasive virtual colonoscopy and methods of testing stool samples that detect genetic indicators for cancer. While some of the newer options in testing may be promising, there is nothing to compare with the accuracy and therapeutic advantages of colonoscopy, said AAMC Gastroenterologist Anthony Calabrese, M.D.
“We can’t emphasize this enough—go for prevention rather than detection,” said Dr. Calabrese. “One in fifteen people will develop colon cancer in their lifetime, and patients can have confidence that regular colonoscopy screenings give them the best chance [to stay healthy].”
Current recommendations say that men and women with no risk factors should begin colonoscopy screening at age fifty. If there is a family history of colon cancer, people should start screening when they are ten years younger than the family member was when the cancer developed.
Dr. Epstein said, “Every year we lose more people to colon cancer than the number that died in the entire Vietnam War, and it’s estimated that eighty percent of those people would be alive if they had taken the time to go for screening.”
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