Detecting and Curing Colon Cancer
By Peter Brennan, MD
March is Colon Cancer Awareness
Month. This is a good time to talk with your doctor about your risk factors for
colon cancer and the benefits of regular screening. Colon cancer remains the
second leading cause of cancer death following lung
cancer. However, unlike lung cancer, colon cancer can in most cases easily be
detected in the early stages with regularly scheduled colonoscopies and very
Are there any new developments
relating to colon cancer?
Two very encouraging trends over
the past six years have been the steady drop in the number of colon cancer
surgeries, and the fact that many of the colon cancer patients requiring
surgery are having it performed at an earlier stage of the disease. These
trends are an accrued benefit from the previous decade of increased colon
cancer screening. During a screening colonoscopy, the gastroenterologist can
remove small pre-cancerous polyps from the lining of the intestinal tract,
preventing them from becoming cancerous.
Another interesting development has
been the adoption of a new approach to preparing for a colonoscopy. Prior to
having a colonoscopy, patients have to cleanse their intestinal tract so the
gastroenterologist can get a clear look at the walls of the colon (large
intestine). Historically, this cleansing process has included drinking large
amounts of a special cleansing preparation all at once the night before the
colonoscopy, which was hard for some patients to tolerate. With the new
cleansing program, called “split dosing,” the fluid preparation is divided into
two stages that take place the night before and the morning of the colonoscopy.
Split dosing is easier on patients and gives the doctors a better look at the
The new approach has the added
benefit of improving the views in both the lower and the upper colon. There has
been some question over the years as to whether colonoscopy detects cancer in
the upper (also called the right side) as well as the lower colon. While it is
true that viewing the upper colon can be more difficult, when the new two-part
preparation is followed and the colonoscopy is performed by a board certified
gastroenterologist, the ability to view the entire length of the colon is
At what age should I get my first
If you have no symptoms and no
family history of colon cancer, we typically recommend that regular screening
colonoscopies begin at age fifty and are repeated every ten years. However, if
you have any symptoms of bleeding or unexplained changes in your bowel pattern
you may qualify for a colonoscopy at any age. If you have a family history of
colon cancer you deserve special scrutiny and should talk with your doctor
about beginning regular screening at an earlier age.
At what age should I stop getting
If you have a life span projection
of eight years or more, you should continue to discuss colon cancer screening
with your primary physician at your annual exam. We rarely perform screening
colonoscopies on people past age eighty-five unless there is a family history
of extreme longevity.
What steps can I take to reduce my
risk for colon cancer?
Dietary surveys and medical studies
have shown that people who eat less red meat, take
daily calcium supplements or aspirin (aspirin should be supervised by your
physician) can reduce their risk for colon cancer by 10-20 percent. People who
follow a largely vegetarian diet have a slightly reduced risk for colon cancer.
A diet low in animal fat and high in vegetables and fruit is also good for your
heart so we recommend this diet to our patients, along with regular screening
Brennan is board certified in gastroenterology and serves on the medical staff
of Cayuga Medicine. He is in practice with Gastroenterology Associates of
Ithaca, where he can be reached at (607) 272-5011.