The month of March is designated as Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month – a time to increase awareness about the 3rd most common form of cancer in the United States.
According to Dr. Harbir Sawhney, gastroenterologist at BMP Mary Lane Gastroenterology, the risk of developing colorectal cancer increases with age, just like most cancers. The good news is colorectal cancer is a slow growing cancer. If detected early, it is very treatable.
"Most colorectal cancers begin as benign polyps," Dr. Sawhney said. "People who have polyps or polyps that have progressed to early colorectal cancer do not always have symptoms. Therefore, someone could have polyps or early colorectal cancer and not know it. Colonoscopy is the most sensitive test for detecting pre-cancerous polyps and cancers in the colon."
Screening and treatment
Polyps can be found by screening and removed before they can develop into cancers. Screening is also allowing more colorectal cancers to be found earlier when the disease is easier to cure.
Treatment for colorectal cancer has improved over the last several years. As a result, there are now more than a million survivors of colorectal cancer in the United State.
"When colorectal cancer is detected in the earliest stage of the disease, the survival rate is greater than 90%," Dr. Sawhney said.
He recommends patients begin screening colonoscopies soon after turning 50, and then continue getting screened at regular intervals every ten years.
"However, you may need to be tested earlier or more often than other people if you or a close relative have had colorectal polyps or colorectal cancer or if you have inflammatory bowel disease," Dr. Sawhney said. "Your primary care provider will determine what screening test is best for you and when you should have it."
Two very common screening procedures are flexible sigmoidoscopy and colonoscopy. The difference between the two procedures is that the sigmoidoscopy only looks at a portion of the colon, while the colonoscopy goes through the entire colon. An advantage to these methods is the doctor is able to not only detect polyps but to remove them at the same time, thus preventing the polyp from becoming cancerous.
"While there is no single, defined cause of colorectal cancer, there are a number of risk factors, some of which we cannot control including age, history of polyps, cancers or other bowel disease, family history and ethnicity," Dr. Sawhney said. "There are several risk factors within our control, including a diet high in red meat, smoking, excessive alcohol use, lack of exercise, being overweight and type 2 Diabetes."
About Dr. Sawhney
Dr. Sawhney specializes in the diagnosis, treatment and management of digestive system disorders and is skilled in advanced diagnostic procedures and treatment options for patients experiencing problems with their esophagus, stomach, large and small intestines, rectum, gall bladder, liver and pancreas. As an infectious disease physician, he also specializes in the care of HIV and Hepatitis C. Dr. Sawhney joined BMP Mary Lane Gastroenterology last summer.
A graduate of the University of Health Sciences Chicago Medical School, Dr. Sawhney completed a fellowship in gastroenterology at the University of Massachusetts in Worcester. He is a member of the Infectious Disease Society of America, the Massachusetts Infectious Disease Society, the American Board of Internal Medicine and the Indian Medical Board.