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Keeping clear of colorectal disease

By the time you finish reading this article, another person in this country will have died from colorectal cancer. According to estimates by the American Cancer Society, more than 55,000 Americans will die from this disease this year. That’s about one person every 10 minutes. It doesn’t have to be that way.

With an estimated 148,610 new cases each year, colorectal cancer—a term used to refer to cancer of either the colon or the rectum—is the second most common form of cancer in the United States. It is also the second largest cause of cancer deaths, which might seem logical until you consider that colorectal cancer is easily spotted through a routine diagnostic test, and when caught early, is more easily treated than many other types of cancers. In fact, when found early, the cure rate for this disease is greater than 90 percent.

One of the biggest obstacles to treating colorectal cancer is that most individuals avoid or postpone having the screening test for this disease. According to research published in the medical journal, Cancer, only about half of those who are at risk for this disease ever undergo the recommended screening procedure.

So, who should be screened for colorectal cancer and why do so many people neglect this essential preventive measure? For most individuals, screening for colorectal cancer should begin at age 50. That’s because more than 90 percent of these cancers are found in individuals beyond the age of 50. Those who are at higher risk of the disease—and this group includes African American males, those who have a history of Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, and anyone who has a close family member diagnosed with colorectal cancer—should be screened at an earlier age.

Several colorectal cancer screening tests are available, but colonoscopy is clearly the most comprehensive and remains the “gold standard” diagnostic exam. During a colonoscopy, the physician administering the test can examine the entire length of the rectum and colon and remove small polyps or biopsy larger ones. Polyps are small, grape like growths on the lining of the colon or rectum that can turn cancerous.

When asked why they avoid or delay having this diagnostic test, individuals frequently mention their belief that the preparation for the test, as well as the test itself, will be uncomfortable or even painful. In reality, a colonoscopy is a painless procedure. The patient is given a sedative beforehand and will sleep through the entire test. The preparation for the test can cause some inconvenience as it requires the use of laxatives to clear the bowel. This will generally require frequent trips to the bathroom the day before the procedure, but should cause only minimal and temporary discomfort.

If you are nearing your 50th birthday, or have already passed that milestone, talk to your physician about your risk factors for colorectal cancer and about scheduling a test to help you stay free from this disease. For most individuals, this will mean scheduling a colonoscopy exam once every 10 years.

Originally Published in The University Doctors' MedicaLink - 01/08

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