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Screening colonoscopy is working

March 26, 2015

The benefits of a healthy diet has long been recognized in the fight against cancer.

Changing your diet

Now – as March celebrates the observance of Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month – comes a new study which finds that a vegetarian diet, especially one that includes fish, may cut the risk of developing colorectal cancer by as much as 43 percent.

“This new study does not conclusively find that a vegetarian diet causes a lower risk, but it is additional powerful evidence that diet and risk are associated,” said Dr. Kelly M. Tyler, chief of the Division of Colorectal Surgery at Baystate Medical Center. “We have known for some time that exercise, combined with a healthy diet, especially one that is low in saturated fat and red meat and rich in fruits and vegetables and whole grain foods, can reduce one’s overall risk of cancer, including colorectal cancer.”

Successful screening

Colon cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer and the second leading cause of cancer death in men and women combined in the United States. But, the good news is that it can be prevented with screening.

Screening colonoscopy is working, according to a report published last year in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, which notes colon cancer rates have declined by 30% in the past decade in people over age 50. The report also noted a decline in deaths from colon cancer, falling at a rate of about 3% a year during the past decade.

“Finding cases of colorectal cancer early through screening can dramatically improve your chances for successful treatment,” said Dr. Wilson Mertens, vice president and medical director, Cancer Services, at Baystate Medical Center and its Baystate Regional Cancer Program.

According to Dr. Mertens, most colon cancers develop from polyps, which are precancerous growths in the colon and rectum.

Among the risk factors for colorectal cancer are:

  • age – older than 50
  • family history of colorectal cancer or colon polyps
  • a personal history of intestinal polyps or inflammatory bowel disease
  • a diet high in red and processed meats
  • obesity, smoking
  • type 2 diabetes
  • heavy alcohol use
  • physical inactivity

However, some half of those eligible for screening still have not had a colonoscopy, noted Dr. David Desilets, Baystate’s chief of Gastroenterology, who had his own colonoscopy recently when he turned 50.

“Contrary to popular belief, although there is sometimes discomfort involved, a colonoscopy is generally not a painful procedure. Patients are given medication to relax and often fall asleep, not waking up until the procedure is over,” Dr. Desilets said.

Among the different screening strategies to discuss with your doctor are: yearly fecal occult blood test, flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years, a barium enema every 5-10 years, and a colonoscopy every 10 years. Most screenings begin at age 50, however, those at greater risk, including African-Americans and American Indians, and those who have a family history of colon cancer, should consider screening sooner.

If cancer is found

Dr. Tyler noted surgery for colon cancer is much more manageable than one might imagine.

“People often have a fear of the unknown and a fear of having to endure invasive procedures and treatments for colon cancer. Because of major advances in technology, we can often offer patients surgery for colon and rectal cancer with minimally invasive techniques which allow for smaller incisions and improved recovery. Even patients who may require more extensive surgery are experiencing improved outcomes and survival from colon cancer with adequate medical and surgical treatment,” said Dr. Tyler.

“Our surgeons recognize the importance of sphincter-sparing treatments that allow most colorectal cancer patients to heal after surgery with the ability to pass bowel movements naturally without an ostomy bag. Doctors have also learned what makes colorectal surgery more successful, such as being sure to remove enough lymph nodes during the procedure,” she added.