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Five specifics of colorectal cancer

A doctor holds an elderly man's arm

Recent developments relating to colorectal cancer have brought hope. Earlier this year, researchers identified two bacteria found in the gut that work together to propel the growth of colon tumors.

While developments like these are positive and can translate into new preventive therapies and treatments, colorectal cancer still remains the second-leading cause of cancer death in both men and women in the US. Men have a one in 22 chance in developing the disease while women’s risk is one in 24. It is expected to cause nearly 51,000 deaths in 2018.

To combat colorectal cancer, know the details. Here are five things to get you started.

1. Who's at risk?

The American Cancer Society reported a sharp increase in colorectal cancer developing in younger people last year. But, generally speaking, colon cancer affects people over the age of 50, which is why recommended screening starts at that age. Awareness has become increasingly important. People at risk have family members who have had this diagnosis, especially if they were first-degree relatives. Other at-risk populations include those with inflammatory bowel disease, such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease and those who don’t live a healthy lifestyle (smoking, diabetes, obesity, etc.).

2. Signs or symptoms

Colon cancer is an often asymptomatic cancer. Frequently there are no overt signs or symptoms. The vast majority of us know the pattern of our gastrointestinal tract. A change in bowel habits — going three or four times daily or an erratic pattern — are flashing red lights. Rectal bleeding is a potential problem, as is a new onset of fatigue and vague abdominal pains.

3. Screening/diagnostic testing

You should regularly have blood work and an annual digital exam. The gold standard for screening for colorectal cancer is a colonoscopy (actual or virtual). A new, more accurate stool test is being developed to detect antigens shed by colon cancers in the stool. The newer tests are becoming more and more accurate.

4. Treatment

Surgical intervention is the main treatment, as long as the cancer has not spread. Technological advancements have brought about laparoscopic and robotic surgeries, which result in smaller incisions and faster recovery times. The shorter the hospital stay, the shorter the overall recuperation. Additional treatment may include chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy.

5. Preventive schemes

Live a healthy lifestyle and be active. Don’t smoke and watch your weight. If you have diabetes make sure it’s under control. The most effective mode of prevention is to have periodic colonoscopies. The vast majority of colorectal cancer cases are preceded by a benign stage called polyp. Removing polyps during a colonoscopy is like pulling dandelions from your lawn in the spring before they go to seed. If you do this, the lawn will not be overcome by dandelions. Similarly, if polyps are found and removed colonoscopically, often colorectal cancer can be prevented.

John Procaccino, MD, is chief of the Division of Colorectal Surgery at North Shore University Hospital and an assistant professor at the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell. He also leads Northwell Health’s Fellowship in Colon and Rectal Surgery.

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