It seems like just about every month is designated as an “awareness month” for one cause or another. We recognize breast cancer in October, diabetes in November and heart health in February, just to name a few. Some months even have multiple designations. March, for instance, is both National Nutrition Month and National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. But just because calling a month an awareness month is common, it doesn’t make it any less important, particularly when it comes to colorectal cancer, which is preventable when caught early. Colorectal cancer rates have been decreasing over the last 20 years, in part because of increased awareness, which has led to earlier screenings and the ability to detect and remove colorectal polyps before they become cancerous.
Colon cancer affects the large intestine, which includes the colon and rectum, and is the second-leading cause of cancer death in Tennessee. It affects both men and women and all racial groups. The estimated number of people to be diagnosed in Tennessee with colon cancer in 2017 is 3,080 people, with approximately 1,220 deaths.
“Unlike other forms of cancer, such as prostate cancer or breast cancer, colon cancer is a disease that is preventable,” said Blount Memorial gastroenterologist Dr. William Lyles. “Colon cancer screenings can catch precancerous lesions before they ever have the chance to turn into cancer, meaning simply having the screening can save your life. Colon cancer is one of the most preventable types of cancer we treat in our practice. It is not only preventable, but also curable when detected at an early stage,” he added.
“We know that the risk of colon cancer increases with age, especially if you’re over the age of 50, or age 45 for African-Americans,” Lyles continued. “The most important way to prevent colon cancer is to get your screening starting at age 50 for average risk individuals, 45 for African-Americans or younger if you have a family history of the disease. Most colon cancers we know start from benign polyps. Therefore, we have a chance not only of detecting but curing this disease,” Lyles said. “By screening and early removable of the polyps, we can eliminate most colon cancers,” he added.
Lyles says there are several types of screening tests for colon cancer, including flexible sigmoidoscopy, colonoscopy and testing stools for hidden blood. Newer tests are being developed all the time, and Lyles says most insurance companies in Tennessee will cover the cost of the screenings. “The test has improved greatly over the years,” Lyles said. “Colonoscopy prep used to be the thing people had the most trouble with. Formerly, you would have to drink up to four liters of fluid before the screening, whereas now, in some cases, patients only have to consume around 10 ounces. You still have to drink large volumes of liquid, but most of it now is clear liquid that you get to choose,” he explained. “Medications for the endoscopy have gotten better, as well. With medications such as Diprivan or Propofol, you have almost no pain with the procedure. Also, with these medications, you will wake up almost instantly once the I.V. drip is gone, which makes you more coherent after the procedure. I think the procedure and the techniques have gotten much safer,” Lyles added.
“Colon cancer definitely is a problem, but it’s a problem we can get better at,” he said. “It is preventable, and we can make these numbers improve. I highly recommend you speak with your primary care provider today to determine which test is right for you. Doing so can help us detect the disease at an early stage when it can be more than 90 percent curable,” he explained.
For more information about colon cancer screenings, or to schedule an appointment with Dr. Lyles, call Smoky Mountain Gastroenterology at 865-980-5060.