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March 28, 2006 > Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month Focuses on Prevention

Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month Focuses on Prevention

Washington Hospital Gastroenterologist Encourages Older Adults to Get Screened

Last year, nearly 56,000 lives were lost to a cancer that is preventable and treatable, according to the Cancer Research and Prevention Foundation. To promote the importance of screening, the organization is sponsoring National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month in March.

Colorectal cancer is cancer of the colon or rectum. It is the second leading cause of cancer death in this country, yet it is one of the most preventable cancers.

The vast majority of colorectal cancer starts as a polyp, which is a growth on the inner wall of the colon or rectum. The exact cause of these polyps is unknown, but they appear to be caused by both inherited and lifestyle factors.

"While we don't know what causes colorectal cancer, it seems leading a healthy lifestyle that includes exercise, a balanced diet and not smoking helps reduce the risk," said Dr. Anmol S. Mahal, a gastroenterologist at Washington Hospital and president elect of the California Medical Association.

Studies suggest that a sedentary lifestyle and diets high in fat and low in calcium and fiber may increase the risk.

The biggest single risk factor, however, is age. Although young people can get the disease, more than 90 percent of people with colorectal cancer were diagnosed after age 50.

People with a personal or family history of colorectal cancer or colorectal polyps are also more likely to develop the cancer. This is especially true if the relative had the cancer at a young age.

When colorectal cancer is first developing, there are no symptoms. But as it progresses, symptoms can include rectal bleeding, a change in bowel movements, general stomach discomfort, bloating and cramping, diarrhea and constipation, weight loss, vomiting and fatigue.

"If you wait until you have symptoms, it's probably too late," Mahal said. "By the time symptoms appear, the cancer is pretty far along in the majority of patients. That's why regular screenings - before you experience any symptoms - is so critical."

Colonoscopy Can Prevent Death

The most effective screening method, and the one recommended by Mahal, is the colonoscopy. The procedure allows the physician to examine the inside of the rectum and the entire colon using a long, lighted tube. Polyps found during the procedure are removed.

"Everyone should have a colonoscopy screening when they turn 50, and then every five years after that," he said. "If your immediate family member had the disease, you should get a colonoscopy when you are 10 years younger than when they were first diagnosed. So if your mother had the cancer at 50, you should start getting screened at 40."

While the colonoscopy rarely causes pain, it requires patients to clean out their systems by refraining from solid food for a day and using laxatives to completely empty the colon. Unfortunately, the thought of undergoing the screening procedure often causes fear and anxiety.

"The comment I get most often from patients is that the colonoscopy is not as bad as they thought it would be," Mahal said. "Afterward, most patients don't know why they were so scared."

The screening procedure is not only important for preventing colorectal cancer, it is also a critical tool for early diagnosis.

"If we can catch colorectal cancer in the early stages, it is highly curable," Mahal said. "When it spreads to the lymph nodes or to other organs, the five-year survival rate is less than 5 percent. It really is the difference between life and death."

For more information about colorectal cancer, visit or

Washington Township Health Care District has been committed to serving District residents since it was formed in 1948. For more information about Washington Hospital and its programs and services, visit

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