March 19, 2008 > Second leading cause of cancer is preventable, treatable and beatable.
Second leading cause of cancer is preventable, treatable and beatable.
Today, cancer is the second leading cause of death in the U.S. One in every 17 Americans will be struck by the disease at some time during their life. After lung cancer, colorectal cancer is the second most common cancer among both men and women. But, this doesn't have to be the case. Cancer of the colon is actually preventable in most instances.
"Almost no one should die from colorectal cancer," says Anmol S. Mahal, M.D., a Fremont gastroenterologist who has been on staff at Washington Hospital since 1979. "If we as patients and as doctors do what we are supposed to do, death from colorectal cancer would be a very rare event. It is truly preventable or treatable cancer, if caught early."
March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, an observance started in 2000 to increase awareness that the disease is largely preventable, treatable and beatable. The event's founders pursue a vision of a world in which colorectal cancer is no longer a life threatening disease.
According to Dr. Mahal, everyone is at risk of getting colon cancer. However, you are at higher risk if you:
* Are older - 90 percent of colon cancer is diagnosed in people over 50.
* Eat a diet heavy in animal fat.
* Have colon polyps.
* Have ulcerative or another type of colitis.
Your risk increases significantly if you have a personal or family history of colon cancer.
"Despite this, a good number of people who get colon cancer have no history of the disease in themselves or their family," adds Dr. Mahal.
The key to prevention and effective treatment of colon cancer is early detection. This can be challenging because most people fail to have symptoms until the disease is fairly advanced. Occasionally, people will experience iron deficiency anemia, a change in bowel habits or rectal bleeding. Rectal bleeding can also be caused by conditions like hemorrhoids, colitis or diverticulosis.
Because colon cancer has so few early symptoms, the best way to detect the disease - or even prevent it - is to have a colonoscopy. The American Cancer Society recommends, starting at age 50, everyone should have a colonoscopy every 10 years. If you are at high risk, you should have the test more often. Just don't wait until you have symptoms before being screened.
"If you wait to have symptoms before getting screened for colon cancer, there is a high chance the cancer will have already spread," says Dr. Mahal, who warns that a delayed diagnosis could result in a poor prognosis and premature death.
During a colonoscopy, a fiber optic camera on a flexible tube is inserted into the length of the colon. This allows the doctor to visualize the entire colon. If polyps are found, they can usually be safely removed during the procedure.
"When we perform this type of screening, we can actually prevent cancer by removing the polyps in their precancerous form," explains Dr. Mahal. "Not all polyps are found to be cancerous or precancerous. If a polyp is found to be cancerous and it is in the early stages, it can almost always be cured by surgery."
As an added precaution, Dr. Mahal recommends that everyone over age 50 should also have a fecal occult blood (FOB) test annually. The samples for this test can be collected at home using a FOB kit and brought to a testing laboratory. This should be part of your annual physical exam.
"It's a good idea to have this test, but the results are limited," he says. "The fecal occult blood test detects less than one-third of colon cancers."
In addition to being screened, there are things you can do to keep your colon healthy:
* Eat a healthy diet that includes less fat, less fast food and more uncooked foods, including brightly colored fresh fruits and vegetables.
* Drink plenty of fluids.
* Avoid stress - there is a clear interaction between stress and the way the colon functions.
To find a local physician, visit Washington Hospital's website at www.whhs.com and click on "Find a Physician." For more information about colorectal cancer prevention and Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, go online to www.preventcancer.org.