National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month - NBC4 Washington

National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month

Get screened and potentially save your life



    National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month
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    We make appointments twice a year with our dentist to check up on the health of our teeth.  It’s a preventative measure that’s pretty routine.  After all, we don’t want to deal with the aches and pains of a cavity or, worse, a root canal.

    But ask yourselves this:  why don’t we typically take the same precaution with the other areas of our bodies?  Like screenings for colorectal cancer, for instance?

    “Colorectal cancer is one of the most diagnosed cancers in the United States and yet one of the most preventable.  Screening can identify polyps, which can then be removed before they become cancer, and it can also find cancer in its early stages when it can be more successfully treated,” said Suzette Smith, director of partnerships for Colorectal Cancer Screening of the Prevent Cancer Foundation.

    Still, since many aren’t apt to routinely schedule screenings, specialists like Samuel P. Harrington, M.D., of Sibley Memorial Hospital, are urging that people schedule one.

    Why?  Easy -- because it can be potentially lifesaving. 

    “The goal of screening tests, that are less invasive than a colonoscopy, is to identify patients with signs or symptoms of colon polyps or cancers and then follow that with colonoscopic evaluation,” stated Dr. Harrington.

    Should an abnormality surface in a test result, a colonoscopy is typically conducted as a follow-up.  A colonoscopy is painless (note: sedatives are used), and it involves the insertion of a scope into the anus and upwards through the colon and rectum in order to identify signs of inflammation, growths or ulcers. 

    As Dr. Harrington explains, the procedure itself is composed of two parts:

    “The first is diagnostic.  The scope observes the lining of the bowel for areas of abnormalities that would explain lower gastrointestinal symptoms,” he said.  “The second component is therapeutic.  If a patient has abnormal growths [such as] polyps or tumors, the colonoscope can frequently remove them or mark them for future surgical excision.”

    If a patient does have a polyp, early removal of it can reduce risk of cancer by as much as 50 percent. 

    “By removing the polyps, that specific risk is eliminated and the overall lifetime risk is reduced,” Dr. Harrington added.  “Because most polyps take years to develop and grow into cancer, this slow process can be safely interrupted with [a] colonoscopy and polypectomy and most cancers prevented.  If one waits for the signs and symptoms of cancer to develop, the cancer usually will require surgical resection and frequently will have spread to the point that chemotherapy or radiation therapy is recommended.”

    Dr. Harrington further describes that the symptoms of colon cancer are myriad, yet deceptively common.  In particular, irregularities in bowel habits, cramping, diarrhea and constipation are expressive of colorectal cancer. 

    Rectal bleeding, paired with mucous and cramping, iron deficiency anemia (especially among men and post-menopausal women), weight loss, fatigue and vomiting are also signs of the disease. 

    “Colorectal cancer in its early stages may not show any symptoms.  As the cancer grows, symptoms may start to appear.  These symptoms may be caused by other conditions; however, you owe it to yourself and your family to check them out,” stated Karen Peterson, Ph.D., vice president of programs of the Prevent Cancer Foundation.

    Certain risk factors of colorectal cancer, as detailed by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), a division of the National Institutes of Health, include being over the age of 50, having a family history of the disease as well as having digestive disorders like inflammatory bowel disease. 

    The NIDDK recommends patients schedule routine colonoscopies beginning at the age of 50, and then to consult with a physician to plan subsequent visits later on throughout the years.

    Finally, consult with your doctor if you have any questions or concerns. 

    “The best course is to discuss symptoms with your doctor and plan a preventative surveillance program,” said Dr. Harrington.

    So what are you waiting for?  Go schedule that colorectal screening -- and stat.