Cancer is a scary word. Many people do not like to talk or think about cancer. We all hope we never get cancer. Today, I want to give you some really good news about cancer. Some cancer is preventable, which means you can avoid getting it. Cancer prevention is worthwhile and saves lives. By participating in screening programs for the most common cancers, you can effectively reduce your chances of ever having the disease.
Cancer of the colon and rectum is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States and the third-leading cause of cancer death in both men and women. Screening efforts and better treatments have caused a steady decrease in colorectal cancer deaths by 3 percent per year since 2001. Colon cancer prevention starts at age 50 for most people, but can begin earlier for people with a family history of colon cancer or people of a race with higher cancer incidence such as African American or Native American. If your immediate family member has had colon cancer, your chance of developing the disease is two to three times higher than the average person, and your risk can be up to six times higher if your relative was diagnosed before age 60 or if you have more than one relative with colon cancer.
Colon cancer develops slowly over time, and usually starts off as a small growth on the inner lining of the colon wall called a polyp, or tubular adenoma. Over 10 years, the polyp can mutate and grow and become a cancer. At least 30 percent of the population will develop polyps, and about 10 percent of polyps will become cancerous.
Screening for colon cancer can be done by checking stool for blood, or by doing an X-ray test like a virtual colonoscopy or barium enema, or by looking at the colon directly with a fiber optic camera called an endoscope. The procedure to look directly at the colon is called a colonoscopy, and is not only a diagnostic test, but also therapeutic, because polyps can be removed at the same time. Colonoscopy is considered the gold standard of screening for that reason, and has the most sensitivity and specificity of all the screening tests. Ask your doctor which screening test may be right for you, especially if you are over age 50.
In my last column, I recommended living each day as if it were a gift and being thankful, and I need to be reminded of this myself. Suffering and pain can make us forget about the joys of life, yet the experience can center us on our values and identity and make us more patient, humble, and kind. “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and He died for all that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15).
Janet Abadir is a board certified general surgeon practicing at the Specialty Clinic at Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center.