Colon Cancer: A Cancer You Can Control

Many diseases can be prevented if people at risk have awareness and information about the disease, its causes, and warning signs. Awareness and information can also lead to early detection and treatment. In many instances, early detection can even cure a disease. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of colon cancer.

In December 2000, Today Show host, Katie Couric, televised her colonoscopy screening. The procedure was seen by millions of viewers. Couric had lost her husband to colon cancer because his condition was not detected until it was too late for life-saving intervention. This grieving widow took advantage of her ability to reach millions of people in an effort to increase awareness about a disease many people don’t want to think about, but should. Most importantly, she informed Americans that regular screening tests for colon cancer can save lives.

Cancer of the colon is highly common. Similar to other areas of the body, cells in the tissues of the colon can develop abnormally and form growths, which in the colon are called polyps. A polyp can be benign, or can become malignant. In order to detect cancer of the colon, screening tests need to be performed. If polyps are present, they must be removed and then tested to determine whether or not they contain cancerous cells.

If cancerous cells are found, further tests are conducted to establish the stage of the cancer. Stages establish the extent and complexity of the cancer, ranging from cancer cells being contained only in the deeper layers of colon tissue, up to cancer cells having migrated to other areas of the body. Stage will determine treatment and prognosis.

Colon Cancer Screening
Early detection is crucial in the successful treatment of any cancer. Mammography, a method of screening for breast cancer, has become a regular part of women’s preventive health care regimen. Similarly, screening the colon through colonoscopy should be a part of everyone’s preventive health care plan.

It is recommended that people 50 and over should be screened for colon cancer annually. However, screenings should be done earlier, if:
• You have a family history of colon or rectal cancer, or cancer of the female organs;
• You have previously had benign growths (polyps) in the colon;
• You have a history of ulcerative colitis (ulcers in the lining of the large intestines);
• Your doctor may also order tests to screen for cancer if there is a change in your
bowel habits, or if you have any bleeding from the rectum.

Colonoscopy is considered the most thorough screening method available today. The procedure enables a physician to view the entire length of the colon and, therefore, provides the most complete information. Even more important, is the fact that colonoscopy also allows immediate removal of any polyps that may be present. Removing polyps can prevent colon cancer.

As James Klingenstein, MD, a gastroenterologist at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, explains, “Recent studies prove that removing polyps can prevent colon cancer. In fact, this is the only cancer for which it is true that the removal of a benign precursor eliminates the possibility of cancer from developing. This is why regular screening is so important.”

Other than regular screening without symptoms, the most common reason for a colonoscopy is when a person is experiencing rectal bleeding. While many people become alarmed and fear that this is a sure sign of cancer, it usually is not. As Dr. Klingenstein reassures,

The important thing to determine is what isn’t bleeding, rather than what is.” This can only be confidently determined through thorough evaluation of the colon, preferably a colonoscopy.

Dr. Klingenstein admits that, for someone who has never had one, the colonoscopy procedure may sound unpleasant. He is quick to point out that every patient is completely sedated, and made to feel very comfortable with the procedure, which can sometimes last as little as 10 minutes.

In spite of our best efforts, there are many difficult experiences and illnesses over which we have no control. Colon cancer, however, is preventable. All that is required is exercising the choice to include colonoscopy screening as an annual health care routine.

This material is intended to provide general educational information and to help users arrange more easily for health care services. This site is not an attempt to practice medicine or provide specific medical advice and should not be used to make a diagnosis or to replace or overrule a qualified health care provider's judgment. Nor should users rely upon this information if they need emergency medical treatment. We strongly encourage users to consult with a qualified health care professional for answers to personal questions.

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