When Hoi Yee Seto-Liu turned 50, her gynecologist and primary care physician urged her to get a colonoscopy, the screening test for colorectal cancer.
“I kept putting it off,” said the IT consultant from Port Washington.
For more than two years, the mother of two college-age sons made excuses. After all, Ms. Seto-Liu had always been healthy. She ate plenty of vegetables. She didn’t have any symptoms. She didn’t have a family history of colon cancer. She got exercise from gardening. She felt fine.
“Last November at my checkup, my doctor again urged me to get a colonoscopy. At 52, I decided to do it,” she said.
It was the right choice: The colonoscopy revealed a tumor in the lower part of Ms. Seto-Liu’s colon. She was ultimately diagnosed with Stage III colon cancer, which had spread to three lymph nodes.
“I was very shocked that I had a tumor,” Ms. Seto-Liu said.
The results also surprised Bethany DeVito, MD, a gastroenterologist at North Shore University Hospital and Endoscopy Center of Long Island. “When Ms. Seto-Liu came for her colonoscopy, she didn’t have any symptoms, such as abdominal pain, bleeding from the rectum, weight loss or change in bowel habits,” she said. “That’s unusual for someone with a tumor.”
A colonoscopy is a safe, effective way to examine the lining of the colon and the rectum for abnormal tissue. Patients undergo the procedure under anesthesia, so it’s painless. Physicians use a thin, flexible instrument to diagnose problems, perform biopsies and remove polyps.
“That’s the benefit of colonoscopy. You can screen for colorectal cancer and remove polyps right away — before they become a problem,” Dr. DeVito said. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that removing noncancerous polyps during colonoscopies resulted in 53 percent fewer deaths.
It’s likely that Ms. Seto-Liu’s tumor started out as a precancerous polyp. “It was probably there for more than three years,” Dr. DeVito said. A screening at age 50, as recommended, may have “caught” the abnormal tissue when it was even more curable, before it developed into cancer.
After having surgery to remove 11 inches of her colon, Ms. Seto-Liu is currently undergoing six months of chemotherapy. “It’s a very difficult time, but I’m trying to stay positive. I tell everyone, ‘Send me your positive energy,’” said Ms. Seto-Liu. Still, she considers herself lucky. “I had it in my mind that I would get a colonoscopy at age 55. If I had waited that long, it could have been much worse.”
Dr. DeVito agreed, adding that Ms. Seto-Liu’s situation is a lesson for everyone. “It’s always better to follow a healthy lifestyle, but keep in mind that it’s not 100 percent protective,” she said. “Don’t put off getting a screening colonoscopy.”
• A North Shore-LIJ gastroenterologist answers questions about colonoscopy screening below.
• Take a free assessment for colorectal cancer at bit.ly/colorectalrisk.
Colorectal Cancer Facts
1 in 20: Overall lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer
1 in 5: Colorectal cancer patients who have another family member with the disease
1,000,000+: Colorectal cancer survivors in the US
An Encouraging Trend
The American Cancer Society (ACS) recently cited several positive trends in colorectal cancer, including a 30 percent reduction in adults ages 50 and older, plus a rapid decline in mortality rates.
Widespread colonoscopy screening is the primary reason for this encouraging news, according to the ACS.
The organization generally recommends a colonoscopy every 10 years, beginning at age 50 at the latest. Those with a personal or family history of cancer or inflammatory bowel disease (like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis) often need to begin the screenings earlier.
Furthermore, any of these symptoms may indicate the need for a colonoscopy:
- bleeding or pain with bowel movements;
- changes in bowel habits with either increasing constipation or diarrhea;
- abdominal pain;
- bloating; or
- unexplained weight loss.
Ms. Seto-Liu had no symptoms, despite living with Stage III colorectal cancer. Make scheduling your colonoscopy a priority.
To find one of our expert gastroenterologists, visit bit.ly/MyMindAtEase or call 888-321-3627 (888-321-DOCS).
Read the next article, Wellness Watch: Family Health and Safety