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March 15, 2010
Welcome to another e-newsletter from the Center for Digestive
Health & Nutrition. Our physicians, nurse practitioner, and registered
dietician provide this information to help improve awareness in
matters of health and nutrition. Each issue - which now goes out to
over 13,000 readers - focuses on a particular topic that we feel will
be of interest. I want to thank our readers for their positive
feedback and suggestions for future topics.
No one likes the thought of cancer - especially colon cancer. The truth is that many otherwise health-conscious adults are just too embarrassed to talk about it. Unfortunately, this silence has allowed colon cancer to become quite common in our society. Did you know that colon cancer is now the leading cause of cancer deaths in nonsmokers? Only lung cancer is more deadly. This year we can expect about 150,000 new cases of colon cancer and about 50,000 deaths. That's the bad news. The good news is that it is surprisingly easy to dramatically lower your risk of this common deadly disease. Read on...
Your Chance To Save A Life
by Robert Fusco, MD
Colon cancer is a common and deadly disease, largely preventable with technology that has been available for over 30 years - screening colonoscopy. Sadly, most adults do not take advantage of screening colonoscopy and we continue to find new cases of cancer in our practice every week. Almost half of all adults are never tested. There are many reasons given. Some are unaware. Some are afraid of the test or the preparation. Many are just too busy or embarrassed to talk about it.
March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month. The American Cancer Society can run public service announcements all day, but the best way to educate other adults is word-of-mouth. If you have had a colonoscopy and found it to be a positive experience, share that information with a friend, coworker, or family member. Most of the things we do from day to day are routine and don't affect others in any great way. But, one of the most rewarding things a person can do is to help another. If you're looking for a way to potentially change a person's life for the better, share your experience about a recent colonoscopy. Correct any misconceptions they may have. Encourage others to ask their family doctor how they can best avoid colon cancer. You never know - you might just save a life.
Your Digestive System
Your intestinal tract is about a thirty feet long hollow "pipe" that travels from top to bottom. Most of the digestive process occurs in the small intestine where food molecules are chemically broken down into smaller components that your body can use for strength, energy and tissue repair. After the digestive process is completed, the resulting waste travels downstream to the large intestine, or colon. Averaging about five feet in length, the colon has little to do with the actual digestive process. Rather, it functions much like a "water treatment plant" receiving about two gallons of liquid waste daily, purifying the water, and recycling it back into your blood stream for reuse. The remaining solid waste is stored in the last 6 inches of the colon - the rectum - until it is convenient to have a bowel movement.
First Polyps, Then Cancer
Colon cancer is a malignant growth that occurs on the inner wall of the colon or the rectum. It is now known that colon cancer usually begins many years earlier as a small noncancerous growth called a polyp. Nobody knows what causes polyps to grow and why some people get them and others do not - but genetics probably plays some role. We do know that over time some polyps will grow larger until they develop into colon cancer. Although there are always exceptions, current data suggests that this malignant transformation is slow and may take as long as five years or longer.
Here is a animation of how a polyp grows:
Who Is At Risk?
You are. We all are. While there are certain risk factors, such as family history of colon
cancer, that may increase your personal risk, the truth is that over 75% of cases have no
unusual risk factors to warn them. In fact, about 1 in 17 adult Americans now develop cancer
of the colon in their lifetime. As an example, if you went to a Pittsburgh Penguin's hockey game and
saw about 16,000 other cheering fans there, realize that almost 1000 of them would have colon
cancer in their future. Standing together, they would cover the ice.
This disease is very common. Despite a popular misconception, colon cancer is
also an equal opportunity disease - men and women are equally affected. It can affect young adults, but most cases occur
after the age of 50 and the risk increases with age. That is why screening is recommended by the American Cancer Society for all adults over age 50. Those with a family history should start earlier.
What Are The Warning Symptoms?
The most common symptom of colon cancer is no symptom at all. That is the problem. You could have a polyp, or even an early cancer, growing in your colon right now as you read this and feel perfectly fine. There are no symptoms such as pain, bleeding, or change in bowel habits to warn you - until it is too late. By the time that a colon cancer is large enough to change your bowel habits, it may already be too late. Left undetected, colon cancer eventually penetrates through the outer colon wall and spreads to other organs, most often lymph nodes and the liver. Then you have real trouble. That is why, despite the development of modern surgical techniques and new medical treatments, the death rate of colon cancer has not improved in decades - less than half are cured. The key concept is - Don't wait for warning symptoms.
Where's The Good News?
It has been well demonstrated that if colon cancer is caught in the earliest stages, the cure rate could be increased to 90%. Even better, it has been repeatedly shown that by detecting and removing colon polyps before they develop into cancer, colon cancer can be prevented. Most polyps can now be painlessly removed during a simple 20 minute outpatient "scope" procedure called colonoscopy.
To decrease your risk of colon cancer, you need to have any colon polyps found and removed before they become cancerous. Early detection and destruction of any colon polyps must be your goal.
Watch this short video of a polyp being removed with a wire snare:
The problem is how do you know whether you have a polyp? Good question! You don't. Since colon
polyps, and even early colon cancer, are usually silent, you cannot rely on symptoms. To
reduce your personal risk, you must undergo an active program of periodic colon checkups, before you have symptoms - just as
you would for routine mammograms and prostate exams. You must go see your doctor when you
feel well. This polyp "search and destroy" approach is the cornerstone of colon cancer
Just Do It
Advanced colon cancer is not easy to treat, but it is one of the most preventable forms of cancer. When detected early, more than 90% of patients can be cured. As an individual, you can dramatically reduce your risk of getting colon cancer by having regular examinations before symptoms develop. Following the simple guidelines can keep you healthy to enjoy the good life you have worked so hard to create. Take charge of your health. If you are over 50 and have not yet had a colonoscopy, ask your doctor, "Why not?" Encourage others that you care about to do the same.