March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month

I recently treated a 46-year-old patient with Stage IV colorectal cancer. I’m happy to report that, despite the dangerous advancement of her disease, treatment was successful and the patient is now cancer-free. I’d be even happier if this relatively young and otherwise healthy woman had not reached Stage IV before seeing me.

Two years prior to her diagnosis, the patient had visited a doctor complaining of chronic stomach problems and rectal bleeding, but a colonoscopy was not performed at that time. When symptoms persisted and a colonoscopy was performed, the screening revealed a large rectal mass. Later tests indicated the cancer had reached Stage IV, which has a 6 percent five-year survival rate – far below the 74 percent survival rate for Stage I.

Colorectal cancer progresses very slowly, making routine screenings all the more important. During a routine colonoscopy, polyps can be detected and removed. Left undetected, these polyps often develop into cancer.

The importance of screening cannot be overstated. It is estimated that as many as 60 percent of colorectal cancer deaths could be prevented if all men and women age 50 or older were routinely screened.

Colorectal cancer equally affects both men and women, is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in America, and is one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers in our country. Medical advancements are making treatment more effective, and I’m encouraged by positive results for patients like the one mentioned here. But my advice is this: If you’re over age 50 or have other risk factors, schedule a colonoscopy. It just might save your life.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the following are colorectal cancer risk factors:

  • Age. The risk of developing colorectal cancer increases with advancing age. More than 90 percent of cases occur in people aged 50 or older.
  • A history of inflammatory bowel disease.
  • A personal or family history of colorectal cancer or colorectal polyps.
  • A genetic syndrome such as familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) or hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (Lynch syndrome).
  • Lifestyle factors, such as a lack of regular physical activity; low fruit and vegetable intake; a low-fiber and high-fat diet; overweight and obesity; alcohol consumption; and tobacco use.

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