Healthy Headlines - Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month


The month of March and its, “madness” are coming up quickly.  This time of year brings much excitement throughout Kansas.  High school and college basketball tournaments as well as the NBA games make for a great time of year for the sports enthusiast.  March also marks National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. 

                Colorectal cancer is a cancer that originates within the colon or rectum.  Colorectal cancer is the second leading cancer in the United States today.  It is helpful to know how you, a friend, or family member can protect yourself from this disease.

                First, who’s at risk?  If you or a close relative have a history colorectal polyps or colorectal cancer this presents an increased risk of developing colorectal cancer.  If you have been diagnosed with an inflammatory bowel disease you may be considered at higher risk for the possibility of colorectal cancer.  Some examples of inflammatory bowel disease are Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.  Genetic syndromes such as familial adenomatous polyposis also put the possibility of colorectal cancer higher.  If you have been diagnosed with one or more of these genetic disorders or have been diagnosed with an inflammatory bowel disease be sure to speak with your physician or healthcare provider regarding proper colon cancer screening and continued monitoring.  People with an increased possibility of colorectal cancer may require more frequent testing or closer monitoring throughout their lifetime.

                Colorectal cancer usually starts as a colon polyp.  A polyp is a growth from the colon or rectal wall that shouldn’t normally be there.  Some of these polyps are benign.  However, over a certain amount of time other types of polyps can turn into cancer.  Some screening tests can find these polyps and they can be removed before this potentially deadly transformation occurs.

                Are there any signs or symptoms with people who have colon cancer?  The most common signs and symptoms include but are not limited to: blood in the stool (bright red blood or black-tarry stools), unexplained abdominal pain, a change in bowel habits (diarrhea, constipation), unexplained weight loss, and fatigue.  Many other disease processes can cause these signs and symptoms besides colorectal cancer.  However, when considering the potential for colorectal cancer never delay to voice your concerns to your physician or healthcare provider regarding your current state of health.

                Who should be getting tested?  If you, a family member, or friend is aged 50 or older please consider getting a screening exam.  Both men and women can get colorectal cancer.  It is more often found in people 50 years or older.  The risk of colorectal cancer increases with age.  Studies have shown that adequate screening saves lives.  Screening tests have the ability to detect colorectal cancer in its early stages.  The possibility of cure improves if the cancer is caught in its early stages. 

                How should I be tested for colorectal cancer?  During your discussion with your physician he or she may want you to consider several options.  Each method has its own advantages and limitations.  I will discuss some of the most common options here.

                High-Sensitivity FOBT (fecal occult blood test) is readily available.  This test is the least invasive.  One type of FOBT uses antibodies to detect blood in the stool.  The other type uses the chemical guaiac to detect blood within the stool. (The blood that may be detected with both of these exams many times is not visible to the eye.)  Both tests are returned to your doctor’s office or lab for formal testing results.  This type of testing is usually performed on a yearly basis.

                Double Contrast Barium Enema:  a person receives an enema with barium followed by an air enema.  This double contrast reveals the circumference of the large bowel and allows the physician to see abnormalities that may be present along the colon wall.  If any worrisome abnormalities are found typically a follow up colonoscopy is warranted.

                Virtual Colonoscopy: This technology uses x-rays and computer generated images of the person’s entire colon.  These are reviewed by the physician and (as with the double contrast barium enema) follow up colonoscopy may be warranted if worrisome abnormalities are found.

                Flexible Sigmoidoscopy:  The physician introduces a short, flexible tube that contains a camera to visualize the colon wall.  The doctor checks for polyps or any other anatomic abnormality within the rectum and lower third of the colon.  This exam is usually performed every five years and is frequently performed within a physician office setting.

                Colonoscopy:  This is similar to the flexible sigmoidoscopy.  However, the entire large intestine is viewed.  During this exam the physician can find and remove most polyps and some cancers.  This exam is also utilized if any initial screening exam reveals concerning results.  A screening colonoscopy is recommended every 10 years beginning at the age of 50.  If abnormalities are found a closer follow up colonoscopy may be requested by your physician.

                All the above screening exams (double contrast barium enema, virtual colonoscopy, flexible sigmoidoscopy, and colonoscopy) first require a bowel-prep.  This prep is used to essentially clean out your bowel for a clearer view of the colonic mucosa.  There are many types of bowel prep regimens.  Your physician will explain his or her specific regimen for you prior to your exam.

                While enjoying the month of March this year remember this month to be National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month.  If you, a friend, or family member is 50 years or older please consider a screening modality that you and your physician or healthcare provider agree on.  It has been shown that screening does save lives.  When colorectal cancer is caught in the early stages it can be effectively treated with very good results. 

                Keep an open-line of communication with your physician or healthcare provider regarding screening exams and be proactive when it comes to your health.  To the reader, I wish a wonderful month of March and continued good health.

                As with all medical conditions, always feel free to contact your physician or healthcare provider with any questions or concerns.

                Dr. Weintz is the author of, “Healthy Headlines.”  He is a family physician at Stanton County Family Practice.

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