By Jennifer Miller, FNP-BC, Family Nurse Practitioner at Health Partnership Clinic
Colorectal cancer screening and early detection saves lives.
March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and as a community health center, Health Partnership Clinic (HPC) is committed to preventative health and educating the communities we serve. It is an excellent time to learn more about colorectal cancer (cancer of the colon and rectum) and how it can be prevented or best treated.
Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States for both men and women combined. This year, approximately 140,000 new cases of colorectal cancer will be diagnosed and 56,000 people will die from the disease. But colorectal cancer is a disease that can be prevented through regular screenings, a healthy diet and regular exercise.
Early Detection Key
Colorectal cancer can be caught early thanks to screening options that exist. Guidelines set by the U.S. Preventive Services assist in deciding how often a person should be screened. I know talking about poop or stool sounds unpleasant. But when colon cancer is caught early, it has a 90 percent survival rate per the American Cancer Society (ACS). Catching polyps before they turn into cancer is the goal. The ACS also reports that it can take 10-15 years for a polyp to turn into cancer, so this is when it needs to be caught. The Society has put together Colorectal Facts and Figures and reports that men are 30 percent more likely to get colorectal cancer.
The risk of developing colorectal cancer increases with age. All men and women aged 50 and older are at risk for developing colorectal cancer and should be screened. Some people are at a higher risk and should be screened at an age younger than 45, including those with a personal or family history of inflammatory bowel disease; colorectal cancer or polyps; or ovarian, endometrial or breast cancer.
Family history of colon cancer is always a big concern. Diet can be another risk. Eating a lot of red meat such as beef, pork, or lamb, processed foods and luncheon meats such as hot dogs, bologna, turkey, ham and other prepackaged foods are associated with an increased risk of colon cancer. Increasing fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains like brown rice, whole wheat, quinoa, barley, popcorn and other whole grains, can help reduce your risk.
HPC’s approach to screening
Here at HPC, we take it seriously. If you are 50 years old or older, one of the first questions your medical assistant will ask is when your last colorectal cancer screening was. If you are due for one, you will be handed a Fecal Immunochemical Test (FIT) kit. FIT is the name given to the health screening test that can identify signs of bowel cancer. It can indicate the presence of cancerous or precancerous growths in the bowel by simply identifying blood in your stool that might not be visible to the naked eye. It is an easy test that you do in the privacy of your own home.
You might ask yourself, how accurate is a FIT test for bowel cancer? According to studies undertaken by the National Institutes of Health, FIT tests are overall highly accurate – this is simply due to them being both highly sensitive and highly specific.
Ways to Catch Colorectal Cancer Early
Current screening methods include:
- FIT should be done yearly. The test looks for hidden blood and DNA in the stool. Blood in the stool may indicate colon cancer.
- CT Colonography is another option. This is a low-dose radiation CT scan of the colon. It helps to find changes to the colon walls. If the test is normal, the current recommendation is to do this test every five years.
- A flexible sigmoidoscopy is a visual examination of the rectum and lower portion of the colon, performed in a doctor’s office and should be repeated every five years. This test is done with light anesthesia.
- The classic colonoscopy tells the most. It is a visual examination of the entire colon which allows for specimens of the abnormal-appearing polyps or precancerous cells to be removed and tested. It goes further into the colon, but the good news is this test is done under sedation.
Both the flex sig and the colonoscopy require a bowel cleanout done by drinking a solution that causes diarrhea until just water comes out of the rectum. If the results of a colonoscopy are normal, then it only must be repeated every ten years. A digital exam may also be done. Not fun, but it is worth it to catch colon cancer early.
Ways to lower your risk
Here are some ways to lower your risk of colorectal cancer:
- Get regular colorectal cancer screenings after age 50. Between 80-90 percent of colorectal cancer patients are restored to normal health if their cancer is detected and treated in the earliest stages.
- Eat a low-fat, high-fiber diet.
- If you use alcohol, drink only in moderation.
- If you use tobacco, quit. If you don’t use tobacco, don’t start. Alcohol and tobacco in combination are linked to colorectal cancer and other gastrointestinal cancers.
- Exercise for at least 20 minutes three to four days each week. Moderate exercise such as walking, gardening or climbing steps may help.
Can colorectal cancer be cured?
Since there are very few symptoms associated with colorectal cancer, regular screening is essential. Screening is beneficial for two main reasons: colorectal cancer is preventable if polyps that lead to the cancer are detected and removed, and it is curable if the cancer is detected in its early stages.
If detected, colorectal cancer requires surgery in nearly all cases for complete cure, sometimes in conjunction with radiation and chemotherapy. Between 80 to 90 percent of patients are restored to normal health if the cancer is detected and treated in the earliest stages. However, the cure rate drops to 50 percent or less when diagnosed in the later stages.
Please, feel free to share your concerns and questions with your provider. Trust me, no question is “too stupid.” We have heard it all and if we do not know the answer, we often can get you the answers.
To schedule an appointment with me, or one of my colleagues, call 913-648-2266.