Monday Medical: How to prevent colorectal cancer

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— Editor’s note: This article was first published in the Steamboat Today on March 7, 2011.

Colorectal cancer is one of the most preventable forms of cancer. This is truly a profound finding, considering the fact colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S.

If we can prevent colorectal cancer, then why don’t we?

There are several factors, but the most important one is knowledge. Knowledge is power. The more we know, the smarter our choices will be, and the more power we will have over the disease, its treatment and the outcome.

One very important point to know about colorectal cancer is that it usually begins as a noncancerous collection of cells called polyps. If detected early, these polyps can be removed using a relatively minor surgical procedure. If left untreated, the polyp can transform and become cancerous.

This procedure is called a colonoscopy. So why are we not using colonoscopy to prevent more cases of this preventable cancer?

Many people do not know enough about this disease, how to prevent it or when to get a colonoscopy. Also, many people who are aware of the procedure are reluctant to get a colonoscopy.

The process of diagnosing and treating colon disease involves bowel-cleansing procedures and devices inserted into the body through the anus. People perceive this to be uncomfortable, unpleasant or embarrassing. So they avoid or delay having a colonoscopy.

The colonoscopy screening exam is recommended for men and women older than 50. Screening at a younger age is recommended for people with higher risks.

Almost nobody looks forward to this screening, so many patients do not talk to their doctors about a colonoscopy until they are experiencing symptoms.

Suspicious symptoms for colorectal cancer include blood in the stool, change in bowel habits, abdominal pain, bloating, weight loss, weakness and fatigue.

Unfortunately, once symptoms are present, the chance of finding precancerous polyps is diminished. We can prevent colorectal cancer only at the precancerous stage.

As a surgeon, I have been performing colonoscopies and treating colorectal cancer for more than 20 years. I tell all my patients that the bowel-cleansing prep the day before is the only difficult part but that they get to do it at home.

The procedure itself is done at the hospital under sedation. Most patients sleep through the procedure and experience little to no pain. Because of the medication, patients need to take the day off but are back to work or normal activities the following day.

If we see polyps on colonoscopy, we remove them and prevent colon cancer. It is that easy.

I encourage everyone older than 40 to make an annual appointment with their family doctor. Your doctor will work with you to screen for cancer and implement preventive measures.

Especially during Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month in March, we are emphasizing this simple message: Get screened. It could save your life.

Mark Hermacinski, MD, FACS, is a general surgeon at Alpine Surgical Associates in Steamboat Springs.

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