Colorectal cancer is expected to strike more than 148,800 Americans this year, and nearly 50,000 people are expected to die from the disease. Even though it remains the second-leading cancer killer in the United States, some are still reluctant to take action to prevent it.
Yet physicians today can suggest a variety of ways to reduce colorectal cancer deaths. One way is exams.
Since 2002, the United States Preventive Services Task Force has recommended regular colon screening for those age 50 or older. Dean W. Lim, M.D., clinical assistant professor of medical oncology at City of Hope, agrees. “If you’re over age 50, get screened each year with a colonoscopy, “ recommended Lim, part of City of Hope's Gastrointestinal Oncology Program. “If you have a family history associated with colon cancer, begin screening 10 years earlier than the age when your relative or relatives were diagnosed with colon cancer.”
In a colonoscopy, physicians use a tiny camera mounted on a flexible tube to view the whole colon while a patient is sedated.
Other potential prevention tools include double contrast barium enema, colon scans through computed tomography and flexible sigmoidoscopy — an exam of the last third of the colon. Most colon cancers arise from polyps that form on the inner colon lining, so by examining this lining through colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy, physicians may spot polyps early and remove them before they become cancerous. Physicians can also perform digital rectal exams and test stool for blood to look for early signs of cancer’s presence.
About 90 percent of people whose colon cancer is caught early, before it has spread to lymph nodes or nearby organs, survive five years after diagnosis, according to the American Cancer Society. But only 10 percent of patients whose cancer has spread to distant parts of the body survive five years.
Just-released guidelines from a cooperative group of expert physicians recommended colonoscopy as the definitive screening tool for most healthy people, but patients should talk to their doctors about the best prevention options for them.
Good lifestyle habits also can reduce risk. Though any new regimen should involve consultation with a physician, eating more whole grains and fewer processed and red meats may help, and Lim also advocates “regular exercise, not smoking, avoiding excessive alcohol consumption and eating a heart-healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables.”