Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month: Colon Cancer Screening Saves Lives

Photo of Henry J. Lujan, MD

National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month is observed in March and gives Jackson Health System providers a valuable opportunity to educate the community on this topic by spreading awareness of the importance of colorectal cancer screenings, prevention, and treatment.

According to the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancer is the fourth most common cancer in both men and women, and the second leading cause of cancer death overall. It is also one of the most preventable.

Oftentimes, colorectal cancer does not cause symptoms, which emphasizes the importance of a screening. However, some important but not specific symptoms include rectal bleeding, unexplained abdominal pain, constipation, or change in bowel habits.

One of the most effective ways of preventing colorectal cancer is through regular colorectal cancer testing – like colonoscopies, which helps find the disease early when it is small and easier to treat. However, at the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic, physicians worry how the virus may have affected routine colon cancer screenings for patients everywhere.

Initially, elective procedures and colonoscopies were put on hold due to the lockdown in late March 2020. Then, a second spike in COVID cases resulted in a second lockdown in our community. But even after elective procedures were allowed, patients delayed follow up with treatment due to fear of contracting the virus in an office or hospital setting. In some cases, patients even tested positive for COVID-19, and their procedures had to be postponed. These events and other factors have contributed to patients delaying their screenings and surveillance colonoscopies for almost a year.

The importance of colorectal cancer screening and its role in the prevention and treatment of colon cancer cannot be over emphasized. With the availability of several effective screening options, we urge the community to get their annual test to decrease your risk of death from colorectal cancer.

Regular screening is now recommended starting at the age of 45 for all patients. This is a change from previous guidelines, which recommended screenings beginning at age 50. African Americans and Hispanics are more likely to be diagnosed with colorectal cancer at a younger age or at a more advanced stage, therefore, these two groups are encouraged to seek screening earlier.

Nearly, 150,000 people will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer this year and close to 57,000 will die from the disease in our nation. Most colorectal cancers start as small polyps that can take 10 to 20 years to become cancerous. Polyps are small growths that can develop on the lining of the colon and rectum. One in four individuals after age 50 will have these (adenomatous) polyps growing in their colon. When polyps are small and benign – and before they have a chance to become a cancer – they can be removed at the time of a procedure known as a colonoscopy, ultimately saving lives.

A colonoscopy is one of the tests used to screen or detect colorectal cancer. It is a procedure performed with a flexible instrument (a scope) with a camera that is inserted through the anus in order to visualize and examine the colon. Colonoscopies are done under sedation and are relatively painless. A colonoscopy is the “gold standard” and allows for removal of polyps and biopsy of abnormalities. However, other acceptable methods of screening and early detection of colorectal cancer exist and include fecal occult blood testing, stool-based DNA testing, barium enema, and “virtual” colonoscopy also known as CT colonography.

If a tumor or cancer is detected by colonoscopy, there are several treatment options. These include surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Surgery is the most common form of treatment and by using the newest, minimally invasive techniques such as laparoscopic and robotic surgery, patients can be cured especially if colorectal cancer is diagnosed early.

Furthermore, by performing the operation with small incisions, a camera or laparoscope and specialized instruments, patients benefit from less pain, quicker recovery, shorter hospital stay, and can return to work sooner.

There are many reasons why patients do not get screening which may include embarrassment, fear of the procedure or bowel preparation, fear of possible discomfort or pain, fear of the results, or even a lack of knowledge.

These should no longer be reasons to avoid screening. Even if you do not want a colonoscopy, discuss other screening options with your doctor.

Henry J. Lujan, MD, FACS, FASCRS, a board-certified general and colon and rectal surgeon, is a member of the miracle team at The Digestive Center of Health and Program Director of the Advanced, GI MIS Fellowship at Jackson South Medical Center. To schedule an appointment, call 305-271-0300 or visit https://jacksonhealth.org/specialty-care-digestive-health/ for more information.