Screening can save lives; prevent cancer

Published 12:01 am Friday, March 21, 2008

March is recognized as National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and I want to share with you some important information concerning this type of cancer. Colorectal cancer, or colon cancer as it is commonly called, is cancer of the colon and/or rectum.

It is equally common in both men and women. In 2007, an estimated 153,760 cases were diagnosed, and 52,180 were projected to die from this disease. On a positive note, this type of cancer is one of the most easily prevented cancers because it can develop from polyps that can be removed before they become cancerous.

The exact causes of polyps are uncertain, but they appear to be caused by both inherited and lifestyle factors. Genetic factors may determine a person’s susceptibility to the disease, whereas dietary and other lifestyle factors may determine which individuals at risk actually go on to form polyps (and later cancers). Those most at risk include the following groups: 1) Men and women age 50 and older; 2) People with a personal or family history of colorectal cancer or benign (not cancerous) colorectal polyps; 3) People with a family history of inherited colorectal cancer; and 4) People who use tobacco, are obese and are sedentary.

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If you are looking for symptoms of this disease, in the early stages there may not be any. In its later stages, symptoms such as rectal bleeding and/or blood in or on the stool, bright red in color, may appear. There may also be a change in bowel habits and/or stools that are narrower than usual. Diarrhea, constipation or feeling that the bowel does not empty completely may also be detected. Other symptoms may include stomach discomfort (bloating, fullness and/or cramps); frequent gas pains; vomiting; constant tiredness and weight loss for no apparent reason.

In order to be detected in the early stages, it is imperative that you begin having regular screenings. The American Cancer Society guidelines recommend that everyone age 50 and over should have a colon cancer screening.

A procedure called a colonoscopy is considered to be the gold standard procedure for colon cancer screening by the American Cancer Society. When colorectal cancer is caught at an early stage, it has a 90 percent survival rate. Yet, fewer than four in 10, or 38 percent, of these cancers are discovered at this stage. According to the American Cancer Society, increasing colon cancer screening among adults 50 and over represents the single greatest opportunity to decrease colon cancer death rates in the United States.

As always, prevention is the key to avoiding some forms of cancer. For colon cancer, prevention tips include: getting a colonoscopy at age 50, or sooner if you are at risk; exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy weight; eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains; and avoiding tobacco and drinking alcohol excessively.

As a healthcare professional, I encourage you to talk to your physician about colorectal cancer and find out if you are at a high risk and learn steps to lower your risks.

Shirley Ogden is a registered nurse at Natchez Regional Medical Center.