colorectalAlthough it’s the second leading cause of cancer death, colorectal cancer often flies under the radar. Yet, with proper screening and early detection, colorectal cancer can be entirely preventable. Dr. John Marks, Chief of Colorectal Surgery for Lankenau Medical Center, which is part of the Main Line Health System, is at the forefront of medical research in the field, and has pioneered many of the most advanced surgical techniques used today. He has provided us with a list of 10 important facts people should know about related to this deadly, but avoidable, disease.

  1. It’s preventable – Colorectal cancer almost always starts as non-cancerous polyps or abnormal cells in the lining of the colon/rectum. When detected and removed during this early stage, these polyps can’t develop further to become cancerous. In instances where cancer has developed but has not spread yet, it is more easily treated. That’s why regular screening is so important.
  2. For most patients, screening should start between the ages of 45 and 50 – The vast majority of cases in patients without family history develop after 50. If you have certain risk factors, such as a family history, obesity, or smoking, you should consult your doctor about starting screenings earlier.
  3. Don’t wait for symptoms – Regular screening is the key to preventing colorectal cancer. Most polyps become cancerous before ever showing any symptoms, so getting regular screenings is the only way to catch them before they have the potential to do any damage. However, if you have any of the following symptoms (a change in bowel habits (such as diarrhea, constipation, or narrowing of the stool) which lasts for more than a few days, rectal bleeding, blood in the stool which may cause the stool to look dark, cramping or abdominal pain, unexplained weakness and fatigue or unintended weight loss) you should check with your doctor, as it means there’s a chance that cancer or other problems have already developed. In this case you should have a colonoscopy, even at a very young age.
  4. Colonoscopies aren’t that bad – Colonoscopies tend to get a lot of undeserved negativity. While the prep work isn’t entirely pleasant, the procedure is simple, generally painless, and as safe as any other minor surgical procedure. Plus, it doubles as both diagnostic and therapeutic, as any polyps found, cancerous or not, can be removed during the test. Most patients’ first question on the way to the recovery room is: “What do you mean it’s over? I didn’t feel anything.”
  5. Healthy lifestyle, healthy colon – Colon health is closely linked to overall health. If you’re eating a diet that’s high in vegetables and fiber, without too much red meat or processed foods, that’s a great start. Exercising regularly and avoiding smoking are also extremely helpful. If your body is healthy, odds are your colon is too.
  6. Anyone can get it – There are a lot of myths out there about who is likely to develop colorectal cancer. But the truth is that about 75% of cases happen in individuals without any known risk factors (aside from age). While there’s the perception that it’s an “old white man’s disease,” slightly more than half of deaths from colorectal cancer are women, and groups such as African Americans, Hispanics, and Ashkenazi Jews have higher incidences of diagnoses, and at later stages of disease progression, than the general population.
  7. Many people who develop colorectal cancer end up living long, healthy lives – Surgical techniques have advanced by leaps and bounds, and now surgery is both more effective and less invasive. The dreaded colostomy bag is much rarer than it used to be, and scarring can be kept to a minimum with laparoscopic and robotic techniques. Early detection improves these odds even further.
  8. There are new testing options available – If you’re asymptomatic and not fully comfortable with a colonoscopy, there are now home tests available which are slightly less invasive. While they are also less reliable than a colonoscopy, they’re significantly better than not getting tested at all. And, as a warning, if the home test finds something, it’s likely you’ll end up getting that colonoscopy as a next step anyway.
  9. Seek out a second opinion – If you’re not comfortable with the information you’re getting from your doctor or surgeon, seek another opinion. In many cases, their choice of surgery style or treatment plan is based on their comfort and experience levels, and it’s possible that another medical professional may be better-served to set up a plan or perform a procedure that will give you the best possible outcome.
  10. Talk to your doctor – Healthcare professionals understand that discussing colorectal health is embarrassing. But if you’re concerned about any aspect of your health, talk to your doctor! Avoiding an awkward conversation could be the only reason that a routine colonoscopy and polyp removal turns into a battle with cancer. Make the call, set up an appointment, and have that conversation now.
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