This week, in light of March being Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, we’re sharing a heartfelt message from URMC colorectal surgeon Dr. John Monson, who writes to underscore the importance of routine screenings and other health habits that can help protect you from the deadly disease. For his insights, read on.
Simple Screenings Save Lives
Colorectal cancer, which affects the colon (the large intestine) and/or the rectum, has historically been a ‘silent’ disease – both in the sense that it rarely manifests obvious symptoms, but also in that, until earlier recent years, it was little talked of. Not only did the subject seem taboo for dinner table conversation, but it affected an older population and failed to elicit the same attention enjoyed by other diseases, such as breast cancer – the awareness and prevention of which was enthusiastically championed by women’s magazines, pink-ribbon fundraisers, and a passionate surge of young survivors.
But the message about the danger of colorectal cancer is raising its voice, as it should. It will kill more than 50,000 Americans this year – more than die in car crashes. Three times as many Americans will be diagnosed, making it the third most common cancer (not counting skin cancer), and the second leading cause of cancer deaths nationwide. But perhaps what’s most staggering is that, despite these daunting numbers, the cancer is nearly 90 percent curable if caught early.
As visible public figures have battled the disease – including Sharon Osbourne, Audrey Hepburn, Ronald Reagan, and Peanuts’ cartoonist, Charles Shultz – its prominence has been lifted in the public eye, freeing the topic for more open discussion. In fact, in 2000, Katie Couric televised her first colonoscopy live on the set of the Today Show, having a powerful influence on viewers. Inspired by the premature death of her 42-year-old husband, who fought the cancer for nearly a year, Couric urged viewers to take these screening tests more seriously. The number of colonoscopies shot up 20 percent in the months that followed – a phenomenon dubbed the “Katie Couric effect.”
The encouraging news about this deadly cancer is that a little education and adopting a few healthful habits can go a long way in conferring protection. Consider the advice below:
- When you turn 50, schedule your first colonoscopy screening and repeat it every five years. If your primary care physician doesn’t suggest it, you should. Cancers caught early are five times as curable as those that have advanced (and possibly spread). In this preventive scan, you’ll be sedated while a small, lighted endoscope inspects your colon and rectum for polyps – mushroom-like growths at risk for turning cancerous. If discovered during the scan, the polyps can be removed immediately, greatly diminishing your future risk.
- Eat grilled meats in moderation, and avoid smoking and chewing tobacco. Whether inhaled or swallowed, carcinogens in charred/smoked meats, tobacco smoke and “chew” all eventually pass through the colon, where they can up your risk for cancer.
- Balance your diet between “red” and “green” foods. Over-indulgence in red meats (eating more than a pound a week) has been linked to increased risk for colon cancer; on the contrary, adding more green, leafy vegetables to your diet and reducing your intake of foods with high-carb, high-fat, high-cholesterol content, has been shown to reduce risk.
- Stay active. Incorporating more physical activity – walking a pet, taking the stairs over the elevators, cleaning your house – helps stimulate your body’s waste to keep moving along (the longer stool sits in your rectum or colon, the more time toxic chemicals have to leech out into the surrounding tissues).
- Maintain a healthy weight, and know your shape. Obese men and women are at greater risk for colon cancer; “apple” shapes, which gain weight around the waist and vital organs, tend to be at greater risk than “pear” shapes, which store fat in their thighs and hips.
- Know the obvious symptoms. Through colorectal cancer is a notoriously “quiet” killer, in the later stages, it can give undeniable clues. If you experience bloody stools, diarrhea, cramping and unexplained weight loss, call your doctor immediately.
Remember, as many as half of people diagnosed with colon cancer will die from the disease, usually because it is caught so late. Simple screenings practices, if implemented unilaterally (once every five years starting at 50), could wipe out more than 80 percent of these diagnoses.
Dr. Monson serves as the chief of the Division of Colorectal Surgery at URMC. His areas of expertise include minimally invasive technologies for colorectal cancer treatment, in addition to basic research exploring a broad range of cancer-related subjects.
For more information about colon cancer screening, talk to your primary care physician, or learn more at http://www.urmc.rochester.edu/cancer-center/colon/.