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Screening key in battle against colorectal cancer

Mary Beth TeSelle
Special to The Union
Portrait of two senior couples going for walk in park and smiling happily chatting on the way enjoying sunny autumn day
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Colorectal Cancer: What You Need to Know

Colorectal polyps and colorectal cancer don’t always cause symptoms, especially at first. Someone could have polyps or colorectal cancer and not know it. That is why getting screened regularly for colorectal cancer is so important.

If you have symptoms, they may include:

— Blood in or on your stool (bowel movement)

— Stomach pain, aches, or cramps that don’t go away

— Weight loss with no known reason

While all of these symptoms may be due to something other than cancer, they should still be shared with your doctor. If you have known risk factors for colorectal cancer, share that with your doctor as well.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of death due to cancer in the United States and half of the people diagnosed with colorectal cancer will die from it. And yet, according to the Centers for Disease Control, among adults aged 50 to 75 years old (the age group at highest risk), one-quarter have never been screened for the disease.

“This is shocking,” says Dr. Thomas Boyle, General and Laparoscopic Surgeon with Dignity Health Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital. “This is despite advances in therapy and widespread primary prevention through screening.”

Given the danger associated with colorectal cancer, Dr. Boyle says it is important to understand the risk factors.

“The risk of colorectal cancer increases with age, beginning after 40 years and rising progressively at 50-55 years, and doubling each decade after that,” Dr. Boyle says. “Most cases of colorectal cancer occur after age 50.”

Men are more likely to develop colorectal cancer than women and a family history of it can increase risk as well. Approximately five percent of all Americans will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer in their lifetime.

Lifestyle factors that increase risk for colorectal cancer include alcohol use, cigarette smoking, poor diet, obesity, and lack of physical activity.

So, what can be done to combat this disease? First and foremost – screening. For most patients, screening should begin at 50 years of age.

People with a higher risk should begin screening at age 40 – or ten years younger than the age of diagnosis of the youngest family member with the disease.

The primary goal of colorectal cancer screening is to identify abnormal growths, known as polyps, well before the polyps become cancerous.

“Colorectal polyps can be non-cancerous as well as pre-cancerous,” Dr. Boyle explains. “The detection and removal of precancerous apolyps are the purpose of colorectal screening. It is the most effective way to prevent colorectal cancer from developing.”

The best treatment for precancerous polyps is to remove them during a colonoscopy, an exam used to detect changes or abnormalities in the large intestine (colon) and rectum.

However, if colorectal cancer is detected, the most effective treatment is surgical removal of the cancerous area.

“The area of the colon or rectum where the cancer is located will determine the type of surgery that is performed,” explains Dr. Boyle.

“Most surgeries will not require a colostomy or external bag for management of bowel movements. If the cancer is not affecting lymph nodes, no chemotherapy is required.”

Dr. Boyle says colorectal surgery may be done with a traditional, or open, incision or, in some cases, a laparoscopic procedure may be possible.

“The type of surgery depends on the location of the cancer and the stage, based on lymph node or other organ involvement,” he explains.

“The procedure and the recovery time vary depending on the age of the patient and the extent of the procedure performed. The stage of colorectal cancer plays a significant role in the surgery performed and in the recovery.”

Recovery from colorectal surgery varies, but Dr. Boyle says typically the patient is hospitalized for three to five days and will spend a total of two to four weeks recovery at home.

“Most patients are aware of their progress by the second week after surgery and have resumed most of their essential activities of daily living,” says Dr. Boyle.

The American Cancer Society says that while there is no sure way to prevent colorectal cancer, there are steps you can take to lower your risk.

These include:

— Maintain a healthy weight

— Increase the intensity and amount of physical activity

— Limit red meats and eat more fruits and vegetables

— Avoid excess alcohol

To understand your personal risk factors for colorectal cancer and to determine when you should be screened, talk to your doctor.


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