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Colon Screening a Must, Says Lourdes Gastroenterologist

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month

CAMDEN, NJ—Colorectal cancer is the third-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. The American Cancer Society estimates there will be 140,000 new cases of colorectal cancer this year and that the disease will cause more than 50,000 deaths.

So how do you know if you’re at risk and if so, what can you do to prevent it? While you cannot control your age and family history, you can reduce your risk with regular screenings for colon cancer.

“Regular screening is the most powerful weapon for preventing colorectal cancer,” said Lourdes gastroenterologist Donald Petroski, MD “Early on, colorectal cancer does not cause any symptoms, so many people don’t go to the doctor until their disease has reached a late stage. Colon screening can detect cancer early, when it is most treatable.”

Colorectal screening involves looking for polyps—small clumps of cells on the lining of the colon or rectum. Colon polyps can occur in anyone, but people over age 50 are most at risk, as are those who are overweight, smoke or have a family history of colorectal cancer or colorectal polyps.

“The majority of small polyps do not cause symptoms. Often, people don’t know they have them until they have a screening test,” said Dr. Petroski. “When polyps are found in the early stages, they can often be removed safely and completely. Most are harmless, but some can become cancerous and spread to other parts of the body.”

Colonoscopy is the gold standard for both the diagnosis and prevention of colon cancer, said Dr. Petroski. During a colonoscopy, the rectum and entire colon are examined using a flexible lighted instrument called a colonoscope. The procedure requires sedation as well as bowel prep.

“No one enjoys the bowel prep,” said Dr. Petroski. “But colonoscopy is the most effective tool we have. It allows doctors to perform a careful investigation of the entire colon and to identify polyps and remove them.”

Experts recommend men and women get their first colonoscopy at age 50. African-Americans should begin screenings at age 45 (African-Americans have the highest rate of colorectal cancer; reasons are not yet understood). For those with a prior or family history of colorectal cancer or polyps, screenings should begin earlier—at age 40 or 10 years before the family member had the disease, whichever is sooner.

Other tests are available to screen for colon cancer. They include fecal occult blood test, fecal immunochemical test (FIT) and DNA stool test, but Dr. Petroski says none are as accurate as a colonoscopy.

Dr. Petroksi urges people to talk with their healthcare provider about when to begin screening for colorectal cancer, what tests to have, the advantages and disadvantages of each test, and how often to undergo screening.

“Polyps do not fall off or take care of themselves,” he said. “The steps you take now can lead to a longer, healthier life.”

According to the American Cancer Society, when symptoms do occur, they can include the following signs. It’s important to see your physician right away if you’re experiencing any of them:

  • Changes in bowel movements, including constipation, diarrhea, or narrow stools that last for more than a few days
  • Dark patches of blood in or on stool, or rectal bleeding with bright red blood
  • Abdominal pain, cramping, discomfort or bloating
  • Unexplained fatigue or weight loss

In addition to regular colon screenings, prevention techniques also include a healthy diet and regular exercise.

To schedule a screening appointment with a Lourdes colorectal specialist, please call 1-888-LOURDES or visit www.lourdesnet.org.

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