March is National Colorectal Awareness Month, and Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital’s Community Hospital Cancer Program continues its effort to educate Santa Clarita Valley residents about colorectal cancer, which affects the body’s lower digestive system, mostly in people older than 50.
“Colorectal cancer is cancer found anywhere from the rectum all the way up through the colon, the large intestine,” said Donna Ferguson, a registered nurse who serves as director of outpatient surgery and the G.I. (gastro-intestinal) lab at Henry Mayo.
Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control [http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/colorectal/]. In 2009 (the latest year for which complete statistics are available, more than 135,000 people were diagnosed with colon cancer, and around 52,000 died from it.
Henry Mayo’s education program has two central messages: First, you can often prevent colon cancer by eating healthier, exercising more and getting regular checkups; and secondly, if the disease does strike you, it can be treatable and survivable, especially if caught early.
Risk & Prevention of Colon Cancer
The primary risk factors are age and lifestyle. “Certainly people over age 50 are at higher risk,” Ferguson said. “People who are obese or have a high fatty diet, a diet high in red meat – those are all risk factors.”
The best way to prevent colon cancer is by maintaining a healthy lifestyle. “That would be eating low-fat, eating a diet that’s higher in turkey, fish, chicken, fruit and vegetables, high in fiber, not so much the processed foods and not so much the red meat,” she said. The related component is maintaining activity. “Exercise, like taking stairs instead of the elevator.” And if you smoke cigarettes, quit.
Symptoms & Early Detection
But even a healthy lifestyle does not guarantee you’ll never get colon cancer, especially for seniors. Ferguson recommends yearly checkups for men and women starting at age 50. Early detection may be the key to survival.
“Any symptoms, meaning abdominal pain, bleeding, change in bowel (movements), should trigger a visit to the doctor,” Ferguson said, though sometimes there are no symptoms, which underscores the need for seniors to have checkups.
Colon cancer is most easily detected by a colonoscopy, a visual inspection of the interior of the colon using a lighted tube and tiny camera inserted in the rectum.
A colonoscopy examines the entire length of the colon; a similar procedure called a sigmoidoscopy only goes as far as the lower third and the results are therefore not as complete.
Both are probably near the top of the list of “least popular medical procedures” for people of any age, but Ferguson recommends men and women have their first full colonoscopy as part of their regular physical exam at age 50.
“If the first colonoscopy is normal, they don’t find anything, then most doctors have them come back anywhere from five to 10 years later and have a colonoscopy only that often, just to be sure nothing has grown,” she said.
“If they find a polyp, which is considered pre-cancerous, they take those polyps out during the colonoscopy and send them to pathology to see if they are cancerous or not,” Ferguson said. “People who have a polyp removed most often need to come back every five years to have a colonoscopy done again” – unless symptoms appear sooner.
“If colon cancer is not detected early by a colonoscopy, then it can cause a lot greater damage,” she said. “When the cancer has invaded through the intestines to the abdomen, it can be much more serious.”
The invasiveness of the colonoscopy is one reason people older than 50 may put off having a screening for colorectal cancer. According to stats published in February by the CDC, 29 percent of the adults surveyed had never had one.
But Ferguson said it’s not all that bad. Doing nothing could be far worse.
“Don’t put it off,” she said. “When you reach age 50, it is not the miserable exam your friends may have told you about. It has a very reasonable prep for about 24 hours before it, then you are numb or sedated during the procedure. And then you’ll be so glad – it’s such a relief to know it’s done, and you don’t have to come back or worry about it for the next few years.”
Treatment & Survival
Once a patient is diagnosed with colon cancer, the treatment is usually surgical.
“They certainly want to remove or excise the cancer, and depending if it has spread or not, it may require chemotherapy and/or radiation, depending on the kind of surgery and how far advanced it is,” Ferguson said. “That’s why it’s important to catch it early. If it’s caught early, many times the patient has a good prognosis for recovery.”
For more information about Henry Mayo and its colorectal cancer treatment, call 661-253-8888 or visit www.henrymayo.com.