Colorectal Cancer can be detected early
National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, held in March each year, gives Dr. Joseph Sharlow, a general surgeon at Ste. Genevieve County Memorial Hospital, the opportunity to promote awareness of the importance of colorectal cancer screening and prevention.
Excluding skin cancers, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the United States. The American Cancer Society’s estimates for the number of colorectal cancer cases in the United States for 2017 are:
• 95,520 new cases of colon cancer
• 39,910 new cases of rectal cancer
“It’s high, but fortunately we’re making progress with fewer people being diagnosed with the disease simply because of increased screening that people are now adhering to and the fact that earlier detection has saved lives,” said Dr. Sharlow. “That’s the good news.”
A decade ago, people shied away from even talking about colonoscopies, but Sharlow said that’s getting better.
“I think people have been afraid of not only what may be found, but they don’t understand how easy it is to have a colonoscopy done,” he explained. “I have mine done every 5 or so years, and actually during my last colonoscopy a pre-cancerous polyp was found. Ten years ago my screening was normal. As we age our risk of developing polyps that can lead to colon cancer increases, which is the reason we recommend a screening by at least age 50. Some people need it earlier if they have a family history of the disease.”
Sharlow, who performs close to a thousand colonoscopies a year, explained how often the procedure is recommended.
“If your study is normal when you have a colonoscopy at age 50—you’re good for ten years. However, if polyps are found, the recommendation will probably be every five years,” he said. “If you have a family history of colon cancer you may want to consider every 5 years, and have your first screening done at age 40. However if you have problems with rectal bleeding or you have had a change in your bowel habits or size of stool, those are things that say ‘don’t wait.’ See your doctor and talk about having a colonoscopy.”
There are several methods of colon screening, but the colonoscopy remains the gold standard.
“A colonoscopy offers direct visualization, which is best,” he said. “Even with a colonoscopy we’re not at 100% detection, nothing can be, but it gets us closer to that mark. You can have a rectal exam done with occult blood testing. There’s a cologuard test now that is sort of a DNA test that can let you know whether or not you’re at an increased risk for colon cancer. You can have a barium enema, which is an x-ray examination. There’s also a flexible sigmoidoscopy examination, which can be done. I recommend the colonoscopy, but the best screening is the one that gets done!”
Dr. Sharlow also explained that there are things we can do to minimize our risk of developing colorectal cancer.
“We can decrease our risk by eating healthier, decreasing the amount of fat in our diet and eating more vegetables,” he said. “Avoid constipation by drinking more water and increasing fiber in our diet; avoid smoking; and increase exercise. It’s pretty much what we all have as New Year’s resolutions. Unfortunately there’s not a magic pill you can take that will decrease your risk.”
As for the procedure itself, Sharlow says it takes about 10-15 minutes. The dreaded “prep,” however, a little longer.
“The procedure does require a cleanse of the colon, but it’s much easier now, it really is,” he said. Let’s face it, maybe one day every five or ten years—most of us can handle that. A colonoscopy is a very safe procedure and most patients wake up afterwards asking when we’re going to get started.”
Overall, the lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer is: about 1 in 21 (4.7%) for men and 1 in 23 (4.4%) for women. Dr. Sharlow hopes people get the message that colonoscopies can save lives. He suggests talking to your primary care provider or call his office at Ste. Genevieve Surgical Care, 573-883-5717.