March 19, 2014
By Matthew Reid
March isn’t just a month for St. Patrick’s Day parties and college basketball games — it’s also a month to learn more about the dangers of colon cancer, and how it can be prevented.
In February 2000, President Clinton officially dedicated March as National Colon Cancer Awareness Month, a time for people to become more educated about the disease and learn how they can be properly screened for it.
One fact that may alarm some people is the high frequency of the disease, but many may also be surprised to know just how avoidable it is.
"It’s a highly preventable cancer," said Wanda Blanton, MD, a board-certified gastroenterologist who joined Hallmark Health System last year. "If we could get Americans to comply with the screening guidelines we could cut the number of colon cancer deaths in half."
Blanton, who performs procedures at Lawrence Memorial Hospital in Medford and Melrose-Wakefield Hospital and who also has offices in Stoneham, feels many people are not aware of how prevalent colon cancer is, as well as how just one screening test can go a long way.
"People need to understand the positive health impact that screenings have and how early detection is possible," she said. "People talk about heart disease and how something like smoking directly relates to lung cancer, but it isn’t well known just how many colon cancer deaths there are each year for both men and women."
According to the American Cancer Society, colon cancer — or more specifically colorectal cancer (cancer of the colon or rectum) — is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer and the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States.
It is estimated that nearly 143,000 people were diagnosed in 2013 and that more than 50,000 died from colon cancer in the U.S.
In 1997 the American Cancer Society teamed up with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to form the National Colorectal Cancer Roundtable, which just last year announced the "80 by 2018" pledge aimed at increasing screening in the United States.
The pledge pushes for a shared goal of reaching 80 percent of Americans 50 years old or older to get screened for colorectal cancer by the year 2018.
The pledge can be downloaded off the group’s website, signed and returned as a way to show one’s commitment to working toward increasing the number of people screened for the cancer and eliminating it as a major public health problem.
"We have screening technologies that work, the national capacity to apply these technologies, and effective local models for delivering the continuum of care in a more organized fashion," the pledge states. "Our organizations will work to empower communities, patients, providers, community health centers and health systems to embrace these models and develop the partnerships needed to deliver coordinated, quality colorectal cancer screening and follow-up care."
Colon cancer typically develops through precancerous growths called polyps, and over time if these growths are not removed they can turn into cancer.
"That is why the screening is so important, and how education about the disease can really be empowering to patients," Blanton said. "Not knowing the specifics of a colonoscopy and being misled as to what the procedure entails can be a real barrier, and we are trying to change that."
Blanton said that one out of three Americans aged 50 or more — or roughly 23 million people — have failed to be properly screened.
"People have heard that the preparation for a colonoscopy is difficult or intrusive, and they have heard that the procedure itself maybe uncomfortable or painful," she said. "Usually patients are sedated so they do not feel any pain or discomfort, and it is our goal to make the screening as easy for them as possible."
One such individual was Marc Heard, a Stoneham resident who was living in Somerville when he was in his early to mid 50s. Despite all the facts surrounding colon health, he was reluctant to get screened and waited for several years to do so.
"I think there is definitely a stigma about colonoscopies, and it’s something people are likely to make a joke about and not take seriously," Heard said. "Here I was, living in the middle of one of the best parts of the world for medical care, and I did nothing. I was almost 60 when I got screened and it’s a good thing I did."
Heard said doctors found several polyps that needed to be removed, and if it weren’t for pressure from family members he may never have been tested.
"Doctors were able to remove the growths before anything became too serious, but had I given it a few more years who knows what would have happened," he said.
Blanton said if a patient objects to an intrusive procedure such as a colonoscopy, there are alternatives such as a stool test or a sigmoidoscopy. She said getting screening one way or another is key, due in part to the asymptomatic nature of the disease.
"One of the most important things to realize about colon cancer screenings is that some people have no symptoms at all, which is why we have the screening program in the first place," Blanton said. "Patients need to be aware that they may not have abnormal bowel habits or abdominal pain or bleeding, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t get tested."
Steps to take
Blanton explains the screening process at Hallmark Health is made to be a fluid and open process.
She said the first step is usually for a patient to talk to their primary care doctor, who would then determine if the patient needed to be referred for a colonoscopy procedure. Hallmark would then schedule the procedure for the patient and provide instructions on how to prepare for the test and what to expect.
Patients would then come in for the outpatient procedure and receive a full report of what was found that day and the report would go to the doctor.
"After it is over the patient will know exactly what the recommendation is moving forward," Blanton said. "They may be told that their next interval for screening is 10 years, but if polyps are found their surveillance interval depends on the number and the type of polyps that were found."
Hallmark Health is showing its commitment to colon cancer awareness by holding a free informational seminar and panel discussion on the subject this week.
Blanton, who will be featured at the event, said she hopes people attend so they can get the facts on the disease and realize how critical proper screening is.
"The main goal is to educate patients who are there and answer any questions they may have so they can better understand what their screening options are," she said. "The focus is on the fact that this is not a screening test to fear or one that will cause them pain."
— Information from the American Cancer Society was used in this report.
If you go
The free colon cancer informational seminar and panel discussion will be held Thursday, March 20, from 6 to 8 p.m. at Melrose-Wakefield Hospital’s Perkins Auditorium. Some of the topics that will be discussed are "from polyps to colon cancer," "colorectal cancer: risk factors" and "protective factors and the role colonoscopies play in colon cancer."
There will also be a question and answer panel discussion based on questions raised by those in attendance.
Registration is required. To register online, visit www.hallmarkhealth.org and select "Events Calendar" or call 781-224-5804.