Know the risks - screening for colorectal cancer can save lives

Experts say that as many as 60 percent of colorectal cancer deaths could be prevented if people over the age of 50 were routinely tested for the disease.

March 22, 2011 

  • The “Welcome to Medicareâ€

For one lucky area resident, early detection of her colon cancer and an advanced minimally invasive surgical procedure meant she did not have to undergo radiation or chemotherapy.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that as many as 60 percent of colorectal cancer deaths could be prevented if all men and women age 50 or older were screened routinely. Yet despite the fact that national guidelines recommend that all people undergo a colonoscopy when they turn 50, many do not.

Lyn Drake was one of them. She knew she should take the test, but she put it off.

"I kept stalling, telling myself maybe next year," Drake said. "I thought my regular checkups were enough."

Ultimately, she didn't have a choice. When her annual physical disclosed a low red blood cell count, her physician referred her to board-certified gastroenterologist, Dr. Michael Gilbreath of Hilton Head Hospital.

"Bleeding in the intestinal tract is often a cause of anemia," Gilbreath said. "More often than not, people suffering from colorectal cancer in its earliest stages exhibit no symptoms at all."

THE RISKS

Among cancers that affect both men and women, colorectal cancer -- cancer of the colon or rectum -- is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States according to the CDC.

Colorectal cancer is one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers in the United States.

The risk of developing colorectal cancer increases with advancing age. According to Gilbreath, more than 90 percent of cases occur in people age 50 or older.

"Colorectal cancer frequently develops from precancerous polyps (abnormal growths) in the colon or rectum," he said. "These polyps can be easily detected and removed during a colonoscopy, well before they turn into cancer, which is why screening is so very important."

In Drake's case, cancer had already developed.

"As soon as Dr. Gilbreath saw it, he sent me to get a CAT scan to see if it had spread any further," Drake said. "Thankfully, the scan didn't show anything more."

Since Drake's cancer was contained, she was an excellent candidate for laparoscopic surgery according to her surgeon, Dr. Robert Soares Jr.

"(Laparoscopic surgery) is much easier on the patient. There is usually less pain and less risk of infection and recovery time is greatly reduced," Soares said. "In Ms. Drake's case, she went home two days after the surgery."

PROTECTING YOUR HEALTH

"Some studies show that increased physical activity and maintaining a healthy weight may decrease the risk for colorectal cancer and many other cancers as well," Soares said.

While a healthy diet with adequate fiber and staying properly hydrated are definitely recommended, the most effective way to reduce your risk is by having regular colorectal cancer screening tests beginning at age 50, or earlier if you have a family history of the disease.

If, like Drake, you've been putting this off you should be aware that most insurance policies cover a screening colonoscopy.

A free screening is also offered as part of the "Welcome to Medicare" physical exam. People nearing the age of 65 can sign up for Medicare as early as three months before their birthdays.

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