New Tools Help Us Find Colon Cancer Earlier
Treatment most effective in early stages
Colorectal cancer can be a devastating illness, and accounts for about 50,000 deaths each year in the United States, making it the country’s second-leading cause of cancer death.
But colon cancer’s slow growth rate — it usually takes years for a precancerous growth to turn into a tumor — gives us an opportunity. If we can find this cancer early, we can save lives.
When colorectal cancer is caught in its initial stage, nine out of 10 people survive for at least five years. But five-year survival rates plunge to about one in 10 when the cancer has spread to at least one distant organ.
Historically, a colonoscopy was the only way to confidently find cancer. Now, a variety of tools are available which might be more suitable to a specific patient’s needs.
The time to ask is now
March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and it’s an opportunity to talk to your doctor about whether you should be screened.
Our team at Beebe Gastroenterology Associates can teach you how to prevent colon cancer and guide you to the screening tool most appropriate for you. In general, screening should begin for people aged 50 and older, though people at higher risk for colon cancer due to family history or health conditions may need to be screened earlier.
Nationwide, more and more people are being screened in accordance with evidence-based guidelines. The percentage of adults 50 and older who are screened rose from 34 percent in 2000 to 63 percent in 2015.
Delaware has achieved screening rates of 73 percent in 2014, the seventh-highest rate in the nation. But we, too, clearly still have progress to make.
New tests are helping us find colon cancer early, when we can offer the most effective treatment. While colonoscopies every 10 years — for average-risk patients — remain the gold standard, in part because doctors can actually remove and test pre-cancerous growths during the procedure, complementary options are emerging.
New testing options
I was excited by news in January of a study exploring a potentially effective blood test for colon cancer. The study, presented at the 2018 Gastrointestinal Cancers Symposium, found the test can detect cancer cells at an accuracy ranging from 84 percent to 88 percent.
Critically, this blood test found cancer cells at an early stage, so precancerous polyps — small projections of tissue from which cancer can begin — can be removed before they turn cancerous.
Another type of test added in recent years is called Cologuard®, a kit that patients take home and use to collect a stool sample, which is mailed to a lab. No special diet or preparation is needed for this test.
A virtual colonoscopy is a test based on a special type of CT scan which can detect both colon polyps and cancer. Even a barium enema can sometimes be used as a screening tool in certain instances.
The colonoscopy continues to be the most reliable way to find colon cancer early, and, at the same time, allows us to search the entire colon with a flexible tube to find and remove polyps.
It requires a special diet for a day or two before the procedure and a laxative to clean out the bowels so we can see them clearly.
A compassionate team
At the Beebe Endoscopy Center, we know a colonoscopy can be stressful. Most patients are given sedation that helps them relax and block the pain. While many patients are a bit nervous for the first exam, they are often surprised at how easy it is.
Most people who follow screening guidelines and develop colon cancer will survive the illness. But we need your help, so please ask your doctor about what screening is best for you and take their advice.
Robert Deckmann, MD, is a gastroenterologist at Beebe Gastroenterology Associates who has nearly three decades of experience helping his patients achieve digestive health. He is board certified and fellowship trained in gastroenterology, the branch of medicine focused on disorders of the digestive system. To learn more about the Beebe Gastroenterology Associates, call (302)645-9325 or visit https://www.beebemedicalgroup.org/locations/beebe-gastroenterology-associates.