Colon Cancer Awareness
March is National Colon Cancer Awareness Month, and we want you to know about the importance of life-saving screenings.
The Impact of Colon Cancer
“Colorectal cancer isn’t usually a concern until middle age,” says JRMC Gastroenterologist, Meer Akbar Ali, M.D., of JRMC’s GI Associates clinic “And maybe because of that, a lot of people underestimate the threat of this disease. However, according to the American Cancer Society, more than 140,000 Americans will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2018, and more than 50,000 will lose their lives, including up to seven thousand in Arkansas. That’s why everyone approaching the age of 50 should learn the facts and plan to have a colon cancer screening.”
What is Colon Cancer?
“Most colorectal cancers start as a polyp – a growth on the inner lining of the colon or rectum,” explains Gastroenterologist Cyrus Tamboli, MD of JRMC’s GI Associates clinic. “Some polyps never change, and others grow and become cancerous. It usually takes several years for this to happen, so early detection often gives us a chance to prevent cancer from occurring by removing polyps that are in the early stages of the disease.”
There are two main types of polyps. Hyperplastic are the most common, and they are usually not pre-cancerous. Adenomatous polyps sometimes turn into cancer and are considered to be pre-cancerous polyps. There is another pre-cancerous condition called dysplasia, and it is an area of the colon or a polyp that has developed abnormal cells, although not necessarily cancerous. However, any growths or unusual cell development is of concern to physicians and has the potential for developing into cancer.
“It can take about 10 years for a polyp to develop into cancer,” says Dr. Ali. “Regular screening can find and remove polyps before they have the chance to become cancerous, and it also allows us to find the disease earlier, when it is easier to treat. That’s why screenings are so important.”
Colon Cancer in Arkansas
In Arkansas, we’re running behind the rest of the nation in having those recommended colorectal cancer screenings. According to the state health department, we have the sixth lowest screening rate in the nation. Men are less likely to be screened than women, and African American men are less likely to have the test than Caucasian men.
Colonoscopy: The Gold Standard
Colonoscopy is the gold standard when it comes to colon cancer screening. “Most people at average risk should have their first colonoscopy at age 50, and at individualized intervals after that,” says Dr. Tamboli. “Additionally. It is recommended by several societies, including the American College of Gastroenterology, that African Americans begin colon cancer screening at age 45.” If you have a family history of colon cancer, you should begin screenings at age 40, and people with other colon problems may be advised to be screened earlier as well. Colonoscopy is the best way to see what’s going on in every part of the colon and rectum. No one necessarily looks forward to it but if you conduct the prep properly, it can give us much information about your colon health.”
A screening colonoscopy to look for colon polyps and colon cancer is an outpatient procedure, which is brief and usually causes little, if any, discomfort. The day before a colonoscopy, you will start a clear liquid diet and begin drinking liquid laxatives to completely clean out the colon.
You will be sedated during the colonoscopy, so you will not be able to drive yourself home. A thin, flexible tube with a camera on the end of it is gently inserted into the colon and sends the images to a television screen. Small amounts of air and water will also be pumped into the colon to keep it open so the physician can clearly see the entire colon and rectum. “If a small polyp is found, the physician will take it off,” says Dr. Tamboli. “If a large polyp or tumor or anything else unusual is found, a portion or possibly all of the mass will be taken and biopsied to see if it contains cancer cells.”
Removing those polyps can help prevent colorectal cancer from ever starting. And if cancer is found early, while it is small and before it has spread, the disease is much easier to treat. Most people whose colon cancer is found and treated early will be alive five years later, and many will live a normal life span.
“You can literally save your own life by having a colonoscopy,” says Dr. Ali. “Don’t let this crucial exam slip your mind. Talk to your physician about having a colonoscopy.”
What you should know about colorectal cancer:
• Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death when numbers for both men and women are combined.
• Many people with colon cancer show no symptoms until the cancer has grown or spread. That’s why regular screenings should begin at age 50, or at age 40 if there is a family history of the disease.
• The symptoms of colon cancer are the same as many other conditions, but you should still see a physician if you experience any of the following:
– A change in bowel habits that lasts more than a few days
– The feeling that you need to have a bowel movement even if you just did
– Dark stools, or blood in the stool
– Change in caliber of stool (pencil thin stools, etc)
– Prolonged abdominal bloating
– Bleeding from the rectum
– Pain or cramping in the abdomen
– Weakness or fatigue
– Unintended weight loss