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The deadly, but preventable cancer

More than 1,800 Oregonians are diagnosed with colon cancer each year.


As the second-leading cause of cancer deaths, colon cancer affects men and women equally, and many of those deaths could be prevented with early recognition.  When diagnosed early, colon cancer is one of the most treatable of all cancers, resulting in a cure 80 to 90 percent of the time.


Unfortunately, in three out of every five patients, the disease is in advanced stages before it is diagnosed.

Which is why education on the risk factors and the importance of screening is so important.


People at risk of colon cancer include men and women over age 50 and those with a family history of the disease. Screening can achieve more than just the benefits of starting treatment early; it can actually prevent the development of a cancer.


This is because colon cancers are recognized as starting from small polyps. Polyps are benign little lumps that can be removed without removing any normal part of a colon; however, if left in place they can change into cancer over some years.


The best current screening method for identifying these polyps is colonoscopy, which employs a scope to obtain internal views of the colon to search for polyps and, if found, remove them before they can become cancers.


Colonoscopy is generally painless and fast – however, the preparation is often what concerns people the most. The preparation, while no fun, is critical because the colon needs to be thoroughly cleaned, so it can be well visualized. The good news is that, if there are no major concerns, a colonoscopy does not need to be repeated for 5 to10 years.


If there are polyps, a colonoscopy should be repeated more frequently based upon physician recommendations until no further polyps are being formed.


Other screening tests for colon cancer and precancerous polyps include a stool test for blood.  Called a fecal occult blood test or FOBT, this test can also detect many colon cancers, but is unlikely to detect a polyp before it becomes a cancer.  This test does not require the prep of a colonoscopy, but does require that patients collect multiple samples.


A barium enema includes an X-ray of the colon and rectum that may find polyps or an early cancer, but is not considered as sensitive as colonoscopy and would require a colonoscopy to remove any polyps.


Everyone 50 and over should be screened for cancer regardless of family history. Only about 10 percent of colon cancer cases are caused by genetic make-up. Additionally, there are often no symptoms when colon cancer first develops, making screening all the more important for early identification.


Age is the single most important risk factor when it comes to colon cancer.  Age increases the likelihood of polyps forming, which is why a colonoscopy is recommended beginning at age 50.  Most cases of colon cancer occur in patients of this age group.  Other risk factors include a high-fat diet, lack of physical activity and excessive use of alcohol.


If you are age 50 and above or have a family history, please get screened. It is a gift you can give to yourself and your family. And, if you know someone who is at risk, urge him or her to get screened. It will bring peace of mind for years to come.


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