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Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month: Importance of early screenings

Cancer Hospital
Posted at 2:42 PM, Mar 13, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-13 17:25:18-04

More younger Americans are being diagnosed with colorectal cancer according to a new report from the American Cancer Society.

Data show that one in five new cases of colon and rectal cancers are among those in their early 50s or younger. For comparison, in 1995, it was one in 10. Doctors don't know what's causing the increase but say it could be related to changes in the environment and people's diets.

“About 55,000 people a year die from colon cancer and 155,000 people each year are diagnosed with colon cancer,” noted Community Medical Center gastroenterologist Dr. Ed Levine. “It’s the second most common cancer killer in America and it’s completely preventable.

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month and Dr. Levine explained why screening is so important for everyone.

“The current recommendation is 45. The recommendation used to be age 50. But now the recommendation’s dropped down a couple of years to 45 for everybody. If you have a family history of colon cancer or a history of inflammatory bowel diseases then the recommendations change more individually, but the recommendation for the general population is 45.”

“The incidents of colon cancer ages amongst patients 45-55 had doubled in the last 10 years,” Dr. Levine said about the age change. “We don’t really know why but we realized we were missing a lot of people that had colon cancer.”

Dr. Charles Archer — a doctor in colon and rectal surgery at Providence St. Patrick Hospital — explained what exactly colon cancer is and how it can start.

“Colon cancer is an abnormal growth in the colon. Starts from a polyp usually and it grows slowly over the course of years and eventually it turns into a cancer and that’s when it has the ability to spread into other parts of the body.”

Anyone can get colon cancer. Several risk factors can include smoking, and alcohol — especially together — a high-fat diet, not enough exercise, and family history, or a history of inflammatory bowel issues. Many people think if they don’t have any of these factors, they are in the clear. But that might not be the case.

Most people with colon cancer do not have any symptoms until the cancer is in a later stage or has spread.

“I get patients all the time that say well I’m feeling fine, so I don’t need to get a colon cancer screening. That’s completely wrong,” Dr. Levine explained. “If you start getting the symptoms of colon cancer, rectal bleeding, or change in bowel habits, or weight loss or persistent abdominal pain then usually it’s a large tumor causing symptoms and you don't want to wait for symptoms to start.”

Colon cancer is one of the most preventable cancers if people take the proper steps to prevent it in the first place. CMC Colorectal surgeon Dr. Michael Zehnpfenning, a colorectal surgeon at Community Medical Center, explained why prevention is so important.

“The most minimally invasive way to treat colon cancer is to never get it in the first place. So really getting your colonoscopy in the first place at age 45 or before if recommended by your family history to take off a small poulp before it turns into colon cancer. Then you don’t need any surgery, you don't need any cuts, and you don’t have any pain. We get to prevent the polyp from developing into cancer and that’s better than any surgery than I can do,” Dr. Zehnpfenning continued.

Overall, a colonoscopy — while it might seem scary — is a liquid diet the day before and drinking a medication to prepare for the procedure. The colonoscopy itself usually lasts between 15 and 20 minutes while the patient is sedated.

Medical professionals note that colon cancer is very treatable if it is caught in the early stages.