Colon cancer-preventable, treatable, beatable

By on April 2, 2009

by Susan O’Neill
How many of you are 50-plus and still have not made an appointment for your colonoscopy? I know, it’s not the most exciting thing to think of spending an hour doing, but it can save your life, or at least save you from getting colon or colorectal cancer.

St. Charles school teacher Jan McDowell’s father had colon cancer, as did three of his five brothers. Her mother had colon cancer, as well.

When McDowell almost 50, she began to feel tired, run down, and was losing weight. One day at work, she thought she was going to pass out. She had a high fever and her blood pressure had dropped.

At the emergency room, they told her she had two tumors, one on each side of her colon, and one of them had burst. The tumor had become infected and was spreading. The doctors performed surgery that night. One tumor was stage one and the other stage three, a more serious stage.

So far, McDowell has been lucky. As a patient of Dr. Robert Bayer’s, she underwent chemotherapy, which was successful.

She was 51 when the doctors diagnosed her cancer. She said if she had had a colonoscopy earlier, she might have prevented it.

“I know it’s not a fun test, but I should have had my colonoscopy,” she said.

Sure, it’s the last thing on your mind. It’s already annoying that turning 50 has gotten your name on the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) mailing list, but you’re still too young to qualify for senior discounts. So who wants to think about how old you are or what might be lurking in your colon?

Bayer, a Delnor-Community Hospital oncologist (cancer doctor), said everyone should have a colonoscopy when they turn 50. And those people whose family has a history of colon cancer should have a colonoscopy even sooner than that.

Bayer said that although the majority of colon cancers are diagnosed after 50, people as young as 20 can get colon cancer if it runs in their family.

“Everybody thinks they’ll live forever, until their friends start dropping,” Bayer said.

According to the American Cancer Society website, your colon (or large intestine) is the internal organ to which your small intestine is attached. Although your small intestine is so incredibly long (20 feet) that it is hard to imagine something like that would fit inside your body, your large intestine or colon is five feet.

Your colon is also the internal organ through which your body’s waste materials move before they leave your body. So it is understandable that people don’t want to think about (or heaven forbid, talk about) it.

I have to say I was probably busy a) washing my hair, b) playing with my dogs or c) ignoring the fact that I was 50, 51 or even 52 while I put off making the appointment to have my colonoscopy.

After all, your colon is five feet long, and they do a colonoscopy by sticking a hollow tube up your rear end and through your colon to see if there’s anything hiding there. So doesn’t that make that hollow tube about five feet long?

The tube has a light and a camera inside of it, so the doctor can take a picture of the inside walls of your colon. Sometimes they find little benign growths called polyps in the lining of your colon or rectum. Polyps are non-viral, warty-like growths that may or may not grow into colon cancer, but most colon cancers start out as polyps. While the doctor is performing the colonoscopy, he can snip out the offending polyps before they can grow into a cancer.

The day before you go for your colonoscopy, you participate in a medical ritual called “the prep.” The prep ensures that your colon is squeaky-clean, so your doctor can easily see the inside of it without anything in the way. The prep can be accomplished in a couple different ways. You can drink gallons of a liquid, or take pills over a number of hours and finish it all off with an enema.

This is actually the worst part of a colonoscopy. I would advise sleeping in the bathroom.

Once you arrive at the hospital the following day, you will likely be given some sedation while you wait nervously in the little pre-operative room. At some point, you will be rolled into the surgical room where you will lie on one side while you wait for the entry of the five-foot tube. Then you will wake up back in the recovery room. You will yawn and say, “Is it over?”

And it will be. Now, won’t you feel foolish for waiting so long to have it done?

Bayer said that colon cancer is the third most common cancer in America, with more than 100,000 new cases diagnosed per year. It is the second most lethal cancer in America, resulting in more than 50,000 deaths in 2008.

However, he said that if a polyp is caught early enough, you can prevent it from progressing to cancer. And if you find the cancer, you can treat it. He said that colonoscopies have proven very effective in screening for colon and colorectal cancer. In addition, chemotherapy has been shown to be effective in treating colon cancers that have not metastasized or spread.

He said that people often do not have any symptoms with colon cancer until it is too advanced to do anything about it. And he said that the longer you have polyps, the larger they get and the more likely they are to turn into cancer.

He said there is a screening test called a Hemoccult fecal blood test designed to find traces of blood in the stool. However, he said that although colon cancers and polyps can bleed, sometimes they do not. He said this screening test can give false positive and false negative results. He said it can be a basic starting point, but a colonoscopy is much more effective in getting accurate results.

He said that Kane County has relatively better statistics than other areas for how many people get tested. Still, he said, less than 50 percent of the population ever gets a colonoscopy. The most informative statistic might be that the majority of the patients he is treating for colon cancer have never had a colonoscopy.

McDowell said she understands people dragging their feet to get their colonoscopy.

“It’s a part of your body you feel is private; that you don’t feel comfortable talking about,” she said. “You think it’s going to hurt. I didn’t think it could happen to me.”

McDowell wears a blue bracelet that signifies colorectal cancer. It has the words on it, “Preventable, treatable, beatable.”
She said she is always after people now to get their colonoscopies.

“It was like a wake-up call for me,” she said. “I could have saved myself a lot of grief.”

Risk factors for colon cancer
• Age: About 90 percent of people
who get colon cancer are over 50
• Family history of colon-related
cancer or polyps
• Inflammatory intestinal conditions of
the colon, such as ulcerative colitis
and Chrohn’s disease
• Diet low in fiber and high in fat and
calories; some increased risk with
high red meat diets
• Sedentary lifestyle: Regular physical
activity may decrease risk
• Diabetes
• Obesity
• Smoking
• Heavy use of alcohol

Signs and symptoms of colon cancer
• Change in bowel habits for more
than two weeks
• Rectal bleeding or blood in stool
• Persistent abdominal discomfort,
such as gas, cramps or pain
• Abdominal pain with bowel movement
• Feeling that your bowel doesn’t
empty completely
• Weakness or fatigue; shortness of breath
• Unexplained weight loss
• Iron deficiency anemia *

* According to Dr. Robert Bayer, colon cancer is the most common cause of iron deficiency anemia