Monday Medical: Colorectal screening saves lives

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March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. Have you scheduled an appointment with your doctor to get screened? Early screening saves lives.

Colon cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S. and is nearly 90 percent preventable through early screening. This year, an estimated 50,830 people will die from colon cancer, but it doesn’t have to be that way. If everyone 50 and older was tested regularly, as many as 60 to 80 percent of deaths from colon cancer could be prevented.

Colorectal cancer occurs in the colon (large intestine) or rectum. Most colon cancer develops first as colorectal polyps, which are abnormal growths inside the colon or rectum that could become cancerous. When detected early, colon cancer is highly treatable.Even if it spreads into nearby lymph nodes, surgical treatment followed by chemotherapy is highly successful. In the most difficult cases, treatment can increase the quality of or prolong a patient’s life.

Colorectal cancer can start with no symptoms, meaning a person could have polyps or cancer and not know it. Symptoms can include blood in or on stool, stomach pains, aches or cramps that don’t go away and weight loss. If you have these symptoms, be sure to talk to your doctor to find out whether these symptoms could caused by cancer or something else.

There are various screening methods for colon cancer. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends colorectal cancer screening for men and women ages 50 to 75 using high-sensitivity fecal occult blood testing, sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy. Those older than 75 should discuss screenings with their doctor.

The fecal occult blood screening method tests the stool for signs of cancer. It is less invasive than other screenings and can be done at home with a test kit, but this type of test is less likely to detect polyps.

The screening tests that detect cancer and polyps include colonoscopy, flexible sigmoidoscopy, virtual colonoscopy and double-contrast barium enema. These tests can detect precancerous polyps, which need to be removed before they turn into cancer. These tests also can detect colorectal cancer early, when treatment works best.

Screening for colorectal cancer typically starts at age 50. African-Americans should begin screenings at 45. People with a personal or family history of colon cancer, who have inflammatory bowel disease, who have a genetic syndrome such as familial adenomatous polyposis or hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer or who are experiencing symptoms are considered high risk and should begin screening before 50.

Here are several reasons to schedule a screening:

■ Colon cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S.

■ Colon cancer often is preventable and is highly curable when detected early.

■ Colon polyps and early cancers often cause no symptoms.

Lisa Bankard is the director of the Wellness Program at Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at lisa.bankard@yvmc.org.

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