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By Dr. Halim Charbel
March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. While the observance is a national one, it's especially important to take note of it here on Delmarva. Wicomico County has one of the highest colon cancer mortality rates in the state. Prevention estimates that if all adults aged 50 or older had regular screening tests for colon cancer, as many as 60 percent of the deaths from colorectal cancer could be prevented.
The American Cancer Society says that nationwide, 50,000 people die each year from colorectal cancer. While the five-year survival rate for colorectal cancer is 90 percent if it is diagnosed and treated at an early stage, only 39 percent of cases are caught at this early stage.
That's why screening for colorectal cancer is so important. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, all men and women should be screened for colorectal cancer soon after turning 50, and then continue getting screened at regular intervals.
You may need to be tested earlier than age 50, or more often than other people, if you or a close relative have had colorectal polyps or colorectal cancer; or if you have inflammatory bowel disease or certain genetic syndromes that may make it more likely for you to develop colorectal cancer.
Speak with your doctor about when you should begin screening and how often you should be tested. As many as 30,000 lives could be saved each year if more people were screened.
You don't have to wait until you're 50 to start reducing your risk. According to the American Cancer Society, some ways to reduce your risk of colon cancer include increasing physical activity, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables (and limiting intake of red and processed meats), limiting alcohol consumption and avoiding obesity.
Colorectal cancer usually develops slowly over many years. Most colorectal cancer begins as a noncancerous (benign) adenoma or polyp (abnormal growth) that develops on the lining of the colon or rectum. Polyps can be removed to significantly reduce cancer risk. Colonoscopy plays an important role in colorectal cancer prevention because precancerous polyps can be detected and removed during the same exam when they are discovered.
Colorectal polyps are diagnosed by evaluation of the inside of the colon and rectum. A colonoscopy is a test that allows examination of the large intestine using a flexible tube (colonoscope) that is equipped with a camera that visualizes the intestinal wall. The endoscopist has the ability to take tissue samples and remove colorectal polyps.
Certain symptoms might indicate colorectal cancer: blood in the stool, narrower than normal stools, unexplained abdominal pain, unexplained change in bowel habits and unexplained anemia. If you experience any of these symptoms, talk with your doctor so you get evaluated.
Right now, 1 in 20 people will be diagnosed with colon cancer. That doesn't have to be the case.
Halim Charbel, MD, is a gastroenterologist with Peninsula Regional Gastroenterology Medicine in Salisbury.