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Colorectal Cancer is Preventable, Treatable, Beatable

Colorectal Cancer is Preventable, Treatable, Beatable

By Mary George, CGRN, and Rachel Ayers, RN

According to the Department of Health, colorectal cancer claims the lives of about eighteen Tompkins County residents every year. Many more area residents successfully avoid colorectal cancer each year through screening and preventive measures, or are diagnosed early enough in the disease process to be treated and cured.


In spite of the fact that colorectal cancer is preventable 90 percent of the time, it remains the second leading cause of cancer death after lung cancer. Furthermore, when colorectal cancer is detected in the early stage, as it often is during routine screening, it can be cured 90 percent of the time. It is, in fact, one of the most curable forms of potentially fatal cancer. As gastroenterology nurses, we want to help increase public understanding about prevention and treatment and lower the number of lives lost to this type of cancer.


How can we raise awareness about colorectal cancer?


We have joined a national campaign similar to the highly effective educational campaign around early breast cancer detection and screening mammography. By way of illustration, in women over the age of fifty, 86 percent schedule regular screening mammograms but only 41 percent have been screened for colorectal cancer. Yet women are more likely to die of colorectal cancer than cancer of the breast.


Who is at risk for colorectal cancer?


Men and women are equally at risk and the chances of developing colorectal cancer increase with age. For these reasons, regular screening should begin at age 50 if you have no family history of this disease. However, if you have a family history of colorectal cancer, talk with your doctor to decide when regular screening should start.


How do you screen for colorectal cancer?


There are a number of different ways you can screen for colorectal cancer; however, the gold standard is a colonoscopy. This is an outpatient procedure that is available in Tompkins County at Cayuga Medical Center and Surgicare. Colonoscopies are performed only by board-certified gastroenterologists, assisted by experienced registered nurses.


Why are colonoscopies the “gold standard?”


Almost all colorectal cancers start out as a little growth (polyp) on the lining of the intestine. We don’t know what causes polyps but we do know that by removing them, a person’s chances of developing colorectal cancer are greatly reduced. The advantage of a colonoscopy over other screening methods is that if the doctor discovers polyps during the exam, they can be removed immediately and sent to the lab for testing. While the majority of polyps are not cancerous, a percentage do show signs of cancer and by discovering them early the chances for a cure are very high.


With such a high rate of prevention and cure, why doesn’t everyone get screened for colorectal cancer?


Some people are reluctant to get screened for colorectal cancer because they are embarrassed about the procedure. We encourage people to overcome their concerns because the doctors and nurses on staff at Cayuga Medical Center are very experienced and we know how to put our patients at ease.


Other people worry about pain and inconvenience. At Cayuga Medical Center and Surgicare, we perform colonoscopies under moderate sedation, which puts patients in a dream-like state. Pain control is closely monitored and adjusted to the comfort level of each individual. The actual examination typically takes fifteen to thirty minutes and recovery from sedation takes about two hours, which is a pretty minor inconvenience for a clean bill of health.


People who cannot afford the screening, because they lack health insurance or their policy does not cover colonoscopy, may be eligible for assistance through the Health Living Partnership of Tompkins County. To find out more, call (607) 274-4500.


Mary George, a registered nurse certified in gastroenterology and Rachel Ayers, a registered nurse, are on staff in the Endoscopy Department at Cayuga Medical Center. If you have questions or would like to receive information about colorectal cancer screening, they can be reached at 274-4192.

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