James M. Gordon, MD, is a gastroenterologist with Banner Medical Group in Peoria. His office can be reached at (623) 876-3840.
Question: What is colorectal cancer and what are the symptoms?
Answer: Colorectal cancer is a type of cancer that occurs in the tissues of the large intestine. It is the third most common cancer diagnosis in men and the second most common cancer diagnosis in women. While the incidence of colorectal cancer and associated mortality rates have been on a steady decline for about the last decade thanks to increased screening, the disease still accounts for about nine to 10 percent of all cancer deaths. However, colorectal cancer can be prevented.
Unlike all other cancer screening exams, including mammograms, colonoscopy (a procedure that allows doctors to examine the lining of the large intestine) is the only test directly tied to a reduction in cancer deaths. In addition to being able to detect colorectal cancer in the early stages and enable physicians to begin treatment as soon as possible, colonoscopy gives doctors an opportunity to identify and remove precancerous polyps that form in the colon as part of the actual screening procedure. Getting rid of these growths before they have a chance to become cancerous essentially prevents cancer from developing and, in turn, saves lives.
Some common signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer include blood in the stool, fecal occult blood (blood in the stool that is not visible), abdominal discomfort and bloating. Interestingly, the majority of people who have colorectal cancer have no visible or recognizable symptoms; therefore, underscoring the importance of undergoing a colonoscopy.
Despite a direct correlation between colorectal cancer screening and a reduction in death rates, only about a quarter of individuals who should be screened actually have a colonoscopy. This disparity has a lot to do with patients feeling intimidated by the procedure and anxious about the prep work required to empty the colon. The colonoscopy itself is painless and patients generally do not experience any residual pain or discomfort.
As with all types of cancer, the exact causes of colorectal cancer remain uncertain. Genetics and certain health conditions such as obesity and diabetes are believed to play a part in development of the disease. The American Cancer Society recommends that most people have their first colonoscopy at age 50. Those with a family history of colorectal cancer are encouraged to begin screening 10 years prior to their family member’s diagnosis.
The best ways to reduce your risk of colorectal cancer include getting plenty of exercise; not smoking; eating a low-fat, high-fiber diet; and taking part in colonoscopy screening exams. Remember, the earlier cancer is detected, the better the odds of successfully fighting it.
The American Cancer Society website, www.Cancer.org, is a great resource for information about colorectal cancer, screening and treatment procedures.