March is National Colon Cancer Awareness Month and for good reason. One in 20 Americans will be diagnosed with colon cancer in their lifetime, and 1 in 7 of those patients will be diagnosed before the traditional screening age of 50. Colon cancer is second leading cause of cancer death in the United States, but it can be prevented through a colonoscopy screening. Both men and women are affected by colon cancer across all backgrounds, but it most often appears in people who are 50 years or older. Chances are that someone you know has been affected by this common, but treatable, disease.
Dr. Douglas Rosen has been practicing in the field of colorectal surgery for the past 14 years at Novant Health Charlotte Colon & Rectal Surgery. He is board certified in Colon and Rectal Surgery as well as General Surgery. He says that there is good news and bad news in what he sees in his practice today. “The good news is that overall colorectal cancer is decreasing probably largely due to more effective screening, better education, and public awareness. The bad news is that colorectal cancer in younger folks below the age of 50 is increasing,” he said. “No one’s completely sure why that’s happening.”
There are factors that may put you at increased risk of developing colon cancer. One risk factor is if you have close relatives such as parents, siblings, or children who have had colon cancer in the past. Another risk factor is if you or a family member has a history of polyps. Polyps are small growths, typically benign, that adhere to the wall of the colon. These can be found and removed during a colonoscopy.
“The most common sign of colorectal cancer is probably no sign at all,” Dr. Rosen says. “It generally starts as small polyps which eventually grow bigger and turn into colon cancer. Our goal is to find those polyps before the cancer develops so that they can be removed.” When symptoms do appear, they may include a change in bowel habits, abdominal pain or discomfort, rectal bleeding, and weakness or fatigue.
For Dr. Rosen, the biggest message he tries to convey is the importance of colonoscopy screenings and of having that discussion with your family, friends, and primary care physician. A colonoscopy gives the physician the opportunity to find a polyp and remove it before turns into cancer. Dr. Rosen says, “It’s a pretty easy test, and it’s only one day. If it’s normal, you don’t have to do it again for 10 years.” Dr. Rosen explains that the day before the test, the patient drinks a solution to flush the colon so that the physician can see the lining of the colon where polyps can grow. “Newer prescription colonoscopy preparations are lower volume and easier to tolerate than the traditional large volume preps used in the past,” he notes.
The test itself is performed while the patient is under sedation. Medicines given through an IV help the patient relax and even sleep during the procedure. “We remove any polyps right then to test them [for cancer]. The patient spends 20 minutes in recovery and then gets to go home and get something to eat.” Because the polyps can be removed before they turn into cancer, a routine colonoscopy can actually prevent cancer from occurring.
“People say to me, ‘I don’t want to do it,’ but a colonoscopy for one day is a lot better than six months of chemotherapy and radiation down the road,” Dr. Rosen says. “This simple screening can prevent a lot of heartache and misery.” For most, a colonoscopy is recommended if you are 50 years of age or older. But if you have a family history of polyps, colon cancer, or a combination of risk factors, then your physician can recommend the appropriate time for your first “baseline” screening.
Dr. Rosen notes that many risk factors for colon cancer are ones that the patient has the power to change. For example, maintaining a healthy weight and not smoking can greatly reduce the risk of colon cancer. “Take care of yourself,” Dr. Rosen encourages.
Since March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month, events are scheduled across the country. One is the 8th annual Get Your Rear in Gear 5K Run/Walk and Kids’ Fun Run, presented by Novant Health and the Colon Cancer Coalition. The event is part of the nation’s largest event series for colon cancer awareness. This year, it will be held at Independence Park in Charlotte on Saturday, March 4th at 10 a.m. In 2016, the event raised $215,000 to help fund colon cancer screenings and to provide financial support to patients fighting colon cancer. For more information on colon cancer or to schedule a screening, call 704-333-1259, or visit www.NHcharlottecolonandrectalsurgery.org.