As a gastroenterologist at Hallmark Health System I see firsthand the effects that colon cancer can have on patients and their loved ones. Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the US for both men and women, behind only lung cancer. The good news is that this is a very preventable and treatable cancer if screening guidelines are followed. According to the American Cancer Society, last year more than 50,000 Americans died from the disease and that death rate could be cut in half if all of those who were due for a screening had one.

Safe, highly effective screening is available. March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month and recognition months such as these give us the opportunity for dialogue to spread the word and, hopefully will serve as an incentive to book that overdue screening.

Hallmark Health and the Boston Bruins have teamed up to fight colon cancer and have produced this public service announcement. 

Colon cancer typically develops with precancerous growths called polyps inside the colon. Over time the polyps can develop into cancer. In early stages, colon cancer shows no symptoms, so we rely on finding the polyps as early as possible. A colonoscopy is the most effective way of spotting these polyps. Although other screening tools are available, none are considered more effective or offer the real-time removal and/or biopsies of polyps and other suspicious growths.

During the procedure, the vast majority of polyps that are detected are removed. Polyps that are very large or with cancerous features can be too high risk to be removed during the procedure, but biopsies can still be safely taken for analysis. All removed polyps and tissue samples are then sent to a pathologist for review. The total number of polyps removed and the final polyp pathology results will then help determine the timing of your next surveillance colonoscopy (ranging from several years up to 10 years).

When you do have a colonoscopy, be sure to follow the preparation process closely in order to get the best results. This includes avoiding solid foods the night before and taking a laxative preparation prior to the exam.

There are some misconceptions about the procedure, but it is very safe. It is a same-day procedure performed under sedation, so patients experience very little to no discomfort during or after the procedure.

We typically recommend starting colon cancer screening at age 50 for most individuals. Those considered at higher risk (family history of colon cancer or inherited forms of colorectal polyps/cancer, personal history of chronic inflammatory bowel disease) should be screened earlier. Studies suggest that African-Americans are also at higher risk for colon cancer compared to other ethnic groups and therefore should begin regular screenings at age 45.

Everyone should be encouraged to consult with his/her doctor to set up the appropriate screening schedule.
There are changes that you can make to your lifestyle as well to reduce your risk from developing colon cancer.

• Get screened
• Maintain a healthy weight
• Maintain an active lifestyle
• Smoking/nicotine abstinence
• Drink alcohol in moderation
• Adopt a healthy diet with lots of fiber, whole grains and 2 ½ cups of fruits and vegetables each day. You should also limit the amount of red meat in your diet.

Christopher Leung, MD, is a gastroenterologist at Hallmark Health System

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