Believe it or not, we’re already three months into 2019. And while your thoughts might be turning to St. Patrick’s Day, March Madness or even spring, March also is a month to take stock of the dangers of colon cancer. As “awareness months” go, National Colon Cancer Awareness month doesn’t seem to get the amount of publicity of American Heart Awareness Month or Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but it carries the same level of importance. While it’s true that rates of colorectal cancer have been on the decline for the last two decades, part of that is due to increased awareness and earlier screenings. Technology, too, now allows for the detection and removal of colorectal polyps even before they become cancerous. That said, the disease remains the second-leading cause of cancer death in the state, and more than 1,200 people died from it in Tennessee in 2017 alone.
But Blount Memorial gastroenterologist Dr. William Lyles says it doesn’t have to happen this way. “Colon cancer is one of the most-preventable types of cancer that we treat,” he said. “It is not only preventable, but also curable when detected at an early stage. We know that the risk of colon cancer increases with age, especially if a person is over age 50 or age 45 for African-Americans. The most important way to prevent colon cancer is to begin getting screened for the disease at age 50 if you’re an average-risk individual or even younger if you are an African-American or have a family history of colon cancer. The screening guidelines may support screening at age 45 for average-risk individuals. The American Cancer Society has adopted this guideline, however we are currently awaiting new guidelines from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Most colon cancers we know start from benign polyps, so we have a chance not only of detecting but curing this disease,” he explained. “By screening and early removal of the polyps, we can eliminate most colon cancers,” he added.
“There are several types of screening tests for colon cancer,” Lyles said. “They include testing stools for hidden blood, a flexible sigmoidoscopy and a colonoscopy. In Tennessee, many insurance companies will pay for any of these screening tests. There also are newer tests being developed, including DNA stool testing and virtual colonoscopies, however, these have not yet been developed fully for screening. Traditional colonoscopies, though, have improved greatly over the years. Preparing for a colonoscopy used to cause people a lot of trouble because they would have to drink up to four liters of fluid before the screening. 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 is a big problem, but it’s not something that we can’t 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.