The Power Of Prevention Against Colorectal Cancer
Wissam Bleibel, MD
What you do in 30 minutes today could save your life years from now.
As a physician, I see all too often what cancer does to people. It robs them of their physical and emotional health, happiness and even life itself. But cancer doesn’t just affect the person diagnosed. It hurts their friends and family.
Modern medicine is a marvelous field, and the progress we’ve made in the treatment of cancer over the past several years and decades is nothing short of miraculous. But even when we win the fight against cancer, it is never an easy victory.
That’s why I preach the power of prevention. What you do today can stop cancer long before it starts.
What Is Colorectal Cancer?
First, the bad news: Colorectal cancer is the second deadliest of all the cancers. In 2016, the American Cancer Society estimates that more than 134,000 new cases of colorectal cancer will be diagnosed, and more than 49,000 people will die as a result.
But there is good news, too. From 2002 to 2011, the death rate from colorectal cancer decreased by about 3 percent for both men and women each year. That means we are doing a better job of treating this cancer. But even more importantly is that colorectal cancer diagnosis rates also decreased by more than 3 percent each year. So not only are we better at beating this cancer, but we actually see it less.
Why the big decrease in the number of colorectal cancers diagnosed? The answer is in preventive screenings. Colorectal cancer is extremely preventable for two reasons. Firstly, nearly all colorectal cancers are slow-growing, taking several years for healthy cells to become cancerous. Secondly, we have the ability to stop cells from completing the change from healthy to cancerous.
The gold standard for preventive screening of colorectal cancer is a procedure called colonoscopy. During this procedure, we can look inside the rectum and colon using a small, flexible instrument called a scope. The procedure takes less than 30 minutes and the patient can go home shortly afterwards.
The day before the procedure, the patient does not eat and drinks a medication which helps flush out their digestive system. This medication is called a “prep” and it gives us better ability to look inside the colon. In the past, you may have heard stories about the prep being a difficult process. Fortunately, in recent years, we have found ways to make the prep more effective and easier to tolerate at the same time.
During the colonoscopy itself, we also try to make the patient as comfortable as possible. We do this using short-acting sedative medications such as propofol, which puts you into a light sleep, allowing us to complete the colonoscopy. When the colonoscopy is finished, we allow the propofol to wear off and you wake up within minutes. We typically keep patients for observation for a short period afterwards, (usually an hour or two) and then the patient can go home.
One of the biggest advantages of colonoscopy is that it allows us to remove pre-cancerous areas, called lesions, or growths, which are known as polyps. We later examine these under a microscope to determine if they are cancerous or pre-cancerous. Not every polyp or lesion will become cancerous, but we remove them now if at all possible to remove all doubt. It can’t become cancerous if it isn’t there anymore.
What You Need To Know
The risk of colorectal cancer increases as we get older, so screening becomes more important for people based on their age. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends screening using the following guidelines:
- Have a screening colonoscopy done every 10 years between ages 50 and 75.
- For those with a family history of colorectal or certain other cancers, screening should begin earlier and be done more frequently, every three to five years or so.
- For those who have a history of polyps, lesions or previous colorectal cancer, screenings can also be done more often as your doctor recommends.
There are also some things you can do in your everyday life to reduce your risk of colorectal cancer:
- Include plenty of fiber in your diet
- Limit your intake of fatty foods, red meat and alcohol
- Avoid use of tobacco products
- Make physical activity and exercise a regular part of your routine
The value of colonoscopy screening means that it’s also typically covered, at least in part, by health insurance. If you have questions about your risks, getting screened or insurance coverage for the procedures, make an appointment with your primary care provider or with a specialist.
I’m also excited to share that I will be presenting at “The Doc is In: Preventing Colon Cancer.” This session is free and open to the public and will take place from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Tuesday, March 8 at the Owensboro Health Healthpark at 1006 Ford Avenue. At the session, you can learn more and ask me questions about digestive health and colorectal cancer prevention, win prizes and take a tour of the Healthpark. A healthy lunch will be provided and registration is required for the session, so call 270-688-4908 to register.
Taking action now could help keep you healthy and cancer-free for years to come.
Dr. Wissam Bleibel, MD is a board certified gastroenterologist with Owensboro Health’s One Health medical group. For more information or to request an appointment online with Dr. Bleibel or call 844-44-MY-ONE (844-446-9663).
Learn More about Cancer Care at Owensboro Health.
This article originally ran in the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer in the March 3, 2016 edition.