Knowledge and Screening Are Key in Fighting Colon Cancer

Knowledge and action have become important tools in reducing the incidence of colon cancer, which is the focus of National Colon Cancer Month in March.

“The annual number of diagnosed cases and deaths attributed to colon cancer is decreasing,” said colon and rectal surgeon Martin Luchtefeld, MD, medical director of digestive disease at Spectrum Health. “We’re doing a better job with early screening and treatment of this disease. However, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 40 percent of adults age 50 and older have not been screened appropriately, so we need to keep educating people about the disease.”

Luchtefeld said the over-50 age group is important because they are most at risk for developing colon cancer. “Many in this group, along with Americans in general, don’t realize the important role knowledge and screening play in prevention.”

The American Cancer Society promotes “Five Myths About Colon Cancer” to improve awareness of the true risks of this type of cancer as well as screening tests available.

Myth: Colorectal cancer is a man’s disease.

Truth: Colorectal cancer is just as common among women as men. Each year, about 150,000 Americans are diagnosed with colorectal cancer and more than 50,000 die from the disease.

Myth: Colorectal cancer cannot be prevented.

Truth: In many cases colorectal cancer can be prevented. Colorectal cancer almost always starts with a small growth called a polyp. If the polyp is found early, doctors can remove it and stop colorectal cancer before it starts. There are several tests that detect polyps, which you should discuss with your physician.

To help reduce your chances of getting colorectal cancer:

  • Get to and stay at a healthy weight
  • Be physically active
  • Limit the amount of alcohol you drink
  • Eat a diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and less red or processed meat.

Myth: African Americans are not at risk for colorectal cancer.

Truth: African-American men and women are diagnosed with and die from colorectal cancer at higher rates than men and women of any other U.S. racial or ethnic group.

Myth: Age doesn’t matter when it comes to getting colorectal cancer.

Truth: More than 90 percent of colorectal cancer cases are in people age 50 and older. For this reason, the American Cancer Society recommends you start getting tested for the disease at age 50. People who are at a higher risk for colorectal cancer — for example, those who have colon or rectal cancer in their families-may need to begin testing at a younger age. Talk to your doctor about when you should start being tested.

Myth: It’s better not to get tested for colorectal cancer because it’s deadly anyway.

Truth: Colorectal cancer is often highly treatable. When found and treated early, the five-year survival rate is about 90 percent. However, because many people are not getting tested, only about four out of 10 are diagnosed at this early stage when treatment is most likely to be successful.

In addition to advancing age, other risk factors include:

  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • A personal or family history of colorectal cancer or colorectal polyps
  • Certain hereditary syndromes

Lifestyle factors that may contribute to increased risk of colorectal cancer include:

  • Lack of regular physical activity
  • Low fruit and vegetable intake
  • A low-fiber and high-fat diet
  • Overweight and obesity
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Tobacco use

“If you have one or more of the risk factors mentioned, you have a higher risk of developing colorectal cancer,” said Luchtefeld. “That means you should begin screening at a younger age and may need to be tested more frequently. Anyone with a risk factor needs to discuss screening with their physician.”

The CDC recommends the following screening tests along with recommended time intervals for each:

  • Fecal occult blood test (FOBT), which checks for hidden blood in stool samples, should be administered every year.
  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy, which uses a flexible, lighted tube (sigmoidoscope) to inspect the interior walls of the rectum and part of the colon, should be administered every five years.
  • Double-contrast barium enema, a test that uses a series of X-rays of the colon and rectum (taken after the patient is given an enema containing barium dye), should be administered every five years.
  • Colonoscopy, which uses a flexible, lighted tube (colonoscope) to inspect the interior walls of the rectum and the entire colon, should be administered every 10 years. During this procedure, samples of tissue may be collected for closer examination, or polyps may be removed. Colonoscopies can be used as screening tests or as follow up diagnostic tools when the results of another screening test are positive.

“It’s important that people realize colorectal cancer usually has no early signs or symptoms, so regular screening beginning at age 50, is the key to preventing colorectal cancer,” said Luchtefeld.  Some studies suggest that routine screening can reduce the number of people who die of colorectal cancer by as much as 60 percent.

Spectrum Health is a not-for-profit health system in West Michigan that offers a full continuum of care through the Spectrum Health Hospital Group, a collection of seven hospitals and more than 140 service sites; the Spectrum Health Medical Group, a multispecialty team of nearly 100 providers; and Priority Health, a health plan with nearly 500,000 members. Spectrum Health’s 14,000 employees, 1,500 medical staff members and 2,000 volunteers are committed to delivering the highest quality care to those in medical need.  The organization provided $111.1 million in community benefit during its 2008 fiscal year. As a system, Spectrum Health has earned more than 100 awards during the past 10 years.