Ask the Experts: Banishing myths about colorectal cancer
March 14, 2013 | by Hiu Chung So
March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, as many people may already know. But being "aware" of the disease means more than being able to recognize the disease's risk factors, knowing its symptoms and getting screened regularly, points out a City of Hope expert on colorectal cancer.
People should also be aware of the misconceptions surrounding this disease, said Marwan Fakih, M.D., co-director of City of Hope’s Gastrointestinal Cancer Program. After all, colorectal cancer kills more than 50,000 people in the United States each year, so being able to separate fact from fiction can only improve one's chances of surviving, or not developing, the disease.
Fakih will address and dispel some of these myths when he speaks at this month’s “Ask the Experts: Colon Cancer – Get the Facts.” Julian Sanchez, M.D., assistant clinical professor in the Department of Surgery, and James Lin, M.D., gastroenterologist in the Department of Medical Specialties, will also be presenting.
Some of the common fallacies Fakih hears, and wants to banish, include:
- “I will undergo colorectal cancer screening when I notice symptoms.” Fakih explained that at its earliest — and most treatable — stages, colorectal cancer often does not exhibit any symptoms. “By the time symptoms such as rectal bleeding, abdominal pain or bowel habit changes exhibit, the disease is typically more advanced,” he said. Because of this, Fakih advises most people to begin screening at age 50, and earlier for those with factors that put them at higher risk, such as a family history of colorectal cancer.
- “I have no family history of colorectal cancer, therefore I am not likely to develop colorectal cancer.” Although a family history of colorectal cancer does significantly elevate one’s risk, not having a family history does not mean a person is immune to the disease. “Approximately one in 20 Americans will develop colorectal cancer in their lifetime, and the majority of these patients do not have a first-degree relative with this disease,” Fakih explained.
- “Colonoscopy is very painful.” Fakih said the discomfort associated with preparing for and undergoing this potentially lifesaving procedure is minimal. “In fact, most patients undergo sedation during their colonoscopy and do not even recollect the procedure.”
- “I have been diagnosed with advanced colorectal cancer; the treatments are going to be miserable.” Fakih said better, more targeted therapy and improved understanding of quality-of-life concerns means that colorectal cancer treatment, even for advanced stages, is no longer as debilitating as it once was. “Chemotherapy for colorectal cancer is fairly well tolerated even in patients older than 70 and most patients remain active during their treatments. Studies in advanced colorectal cancer patients have shown benefits in survival time with chemotherapy without any quality of life deterioration.”
- “There is nothing I can do about my colorectal cancer risk.” There are actually quite a few lifestyle factors linked to colorectal cancer, Fakih said, including levels of physical activity and consumption of red/processed meats, alcohol and tobacco. “To lower your colorectal cancer, aim for maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle.” This includes regular exercise, a diet rich in plant foods and, obviously, sticking to the screening guidelines.