March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month

Colorectal cancer is a major public health problem that cannot be ignored. National Colon Cancer Awareness Month provides a time to get the word out that colorectal cancer is preventable, treatable and beatable.  The good news is that we have been making progress and we have the means to tackle this problem through screening (colonoscopy).

Of cancers that affect both men and women, colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States.  Risk factors for developing colorectal cancer include genetics, race, obesity, smoking, and lifestyle choices. The overall, the lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer is about 1 in 22 for men and 1 in 24 for women.

Gastroenterologist Dr. Douglas Weine, the Director of Endoscopy at Riverview Medical Center states, “The death rate from colorectal cancer has been dropping in both men and women for several decades. There are a number of likely reasons for this. Through screening, colorectal polyps are being found more often and removed before they can develop into cancers. Colorectal cancer is being found earlier when the disease is easier to treat and treatment for colorectal cancer has improved over the last few decades.”

Many colon cancers can present with vague or no symptoms.  However, symptoms can include rectal bleeding, change in bowel habits or abdominal pain. These symptoms should never be ignored.

Dr. Weine concludes, “Unfortunately, people are often embarrassed to talk about their bowel habits and often wait to see a physician.  We hope that by talking about colon cancer prevention, we can help reduce some of the stigmas associated with talking about bodily functions and help save lives.  There is nothing to be embarrassed about and our gastroenterology doctors are here to help.”

A screening colonoscopy generally occurs when one turns 50. Mitigating circumstances could change that based upon several factors including a premature family history or certain symptoms like rectal bleeding.  A word of caution, there are tests such as a fecal samples sent away or a “virtual colonoscopy” that are heavily marketed. While these tests may provide useful information they are not an adequate replacement for a colonoscopy. Only a colonoscopy can fully assess the health of your colon to diagnose or prevent colorectal cancer.  A simple call to your primary care physician or gastroenterologist  to answer questions and get you pointed in the right direction is all it takes.

By Brendan J. Mulholland, MD