Healthcare

Combatting Colorectal Cancer

It’s too important not to talk about …

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It’s a cancer that can be hard to talk about.  Blue ribbons are worn to call attention to it, but you don’t always see as many of them as you see of ribbons of other colors.  You also don’t hear about as many large-scale fundraisers devoted to raising money for this particular cancer. It is, as some have called it, the “quiet cancer” – the one people don’t discuss as often as others.

Nonetheless, colorectal cancer is very real – and it poses a very serious health risk to many people.

How serious? The American Cancer Society calls it the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States.  We can expect nearly 153,000 combined new cases of colon and rectal cancer in America in this year alone.  Of those, 81,540 cases will involve men and 71,270 will involve women.  Colorectal cancer is also projected to cause about 53,000 deaths in 2024 as well.

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, making this the perfect time to start talking about the cancer that sparks so little discussion. Thankfully, our conversation begins with some good news.

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Colorectal cancer awareness ribbon.

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Despite the sobering statistics mentioned above, the rate of colorectal cancer deaths in adults has been steadily dropping for the past few decades. In fact, it’s been decreasing by about 1 percent annually since the turn of the century.

What’s behind this steadily downward trend?

“We’re screening at an earlier age,” explains Thomas Mazza, MD, FACS, a colorectal surgeon with Lexington Surgery at Lexington Medical Center. “Until just a few years ago, the guidelines used to be age 50 was recommended for average-risk individuals to start getting screening, with a colonoscopy or other approved methods. Then, around 2018, the recommended age was lowered to 45.”

That decade-long change has produced big results. Screening earlier means an increased chance of detected colorectal cancer sooner, which means more effective treatment – and an increased rate of survival.

“It’s always treatable, but it’s curable if you catch it early,” Dr. Mazza says. “Colorectal cancers develop without any kind of symptoms. You may have a family history of the disease, and you have increased risk, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to have symptoms. So they develop without any kind of pain or bleeding or changing your bowel habits. Meaning you’ll never know that things are changing and happening in your colon. That’s why we do screening procedures on people that are having absolutely no symptoms and no problems. You screen those patients, and if you find the cancer before it’s presented with any symptoms, you’re much more likely to get it in its early stage and cure it with surgery.”

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“So who is at risk for the disease? The short answer: Anyone.”

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While not as many people talk about colorectal cancer as they talk about other forms of the disease, some noteworthy cases have helped bring attention to it.

“The biggest push was after Katie Couric’s husband had colorectal cancer and died in 1997,” Dr. Mazza recalled. “She was the host of the ‘Today’ show at the time and had her first colonoscopy on-air.”

That prompted millions of Americans to be screened, which became known as “the Couric Effect.”

South Carolina’s own Chadwick Boseman, star of the popular Black Panther franchise, passed away from colorectal cancer in 2020.

“He was young, 43, and died from colorectal cancer,” Dr. Mazza said. “So there’s been some high-profile people with colorectal cancer which has helped call attention to it.”

So who is at risk for the disease? The short answer: Anyone.

“The two things that cause colon cancer are your genes – which you’re born with and cannot change – and your environmental factors, which are your lifestyle,” Dr. Mazza said. “A sedentary lifestyle, obesity, high-fat diets, smoking, those are all things that can contribute. We eat highly processed foods in North America, and we think that’s part of the contributing factor to colorectal cancer, but we don’t have direct evidence of that. But there’s not any one thing that’s a direct cause. You can pretty much peg lung cancer to smoking since about 95 percent of lung cancers are because of it. But that’s just not the case with colorectal cancer.”

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So screening, especially early on, is essential. And a traditional colonoscopy remains the gold standard for it.

“There are other methods, but they are not as sensitive and accurate a screening tool as colonoscopy,” Dr. Mazza indicated.  “The latest thing now is something called Cologuard, which is a stool sample that’s essentially looking for DNA in the stool shed by a tumor. If that test comes back positive, then it’s followed up with a colonoscopy to fully evaluate the colon for any abnormal growth.”

However, when it comes to an in-depth look at what is going on inside your body’s inner workings, the old, reliable colonoscopy still can’t be beat. It remains the all-important weapon in beating this silent killer.

And that’s something worth talking about … 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

Mark Powell (Provided)

J. Mark Powell is an award-winning former TV journalist, government communications veteran, and a political consultant. He is also an author and an avid Civil War enthusiast. Got a tip or a story idea for Mark? Email him at mark@fitsnews.com.

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