Who Cares About Colon Cancer?

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness month. Since cancer of the colon or rectum (colorectal cancer) is the second most common cause of cancer deaths in America, many organizations and individuals are working to promote an awareness of the disease and how it can be treated and more importantly, how it can be prevented.

What is colorectal cancer?

Colorectal cancer is a cancer that develops in the tissues of the colon or rectum. The main difference between cancer cells and normal cells is cancer cells divide and grow when they shouldn’t and cancer cells do not die when they otherwise should.

Colorectal cancers arise in abnormal growths that usually begin as small bumps called polyps. These polyps can continue to grow and change over time and as they grow, the cells can change and gain the ability to grow even more and even invade other tissues and spread throughout the body.

Can anything be done to prevent colorectal cancer?

Yes. A colonoscopy is an exam performed by a gastroenterologist or surgeon where the lining of the rectum and colon are examined for the presence of polyps or other abnormalities.

Studies have shown that it can take about 10 years from the development of a polyp to the progression into a cancer. If these polyps are detected early and removed, these cancers can be prevented. If a colorectal cancer does develop, removal of the cancer at an early stage, before the cancer has had the chance to spread to other tissues or organs, can increase the likelihood of a cure.

In fact, just last month, the New England Journal of Medicine published the results of a 20-year study done in New York City which showed that colon cancer screening with colonoscopy, including the removal of the lesions that can develop into cancer, reduced the death rate from colon cancer by more than 50 percent.

Who is at risk for colorectal cancer?

Both men and women are at risk. Colorectal cancer occurs most often in people 50 years of age and older, and the risk increases as you get older. A family history of colon cancer may also increase your risk for this disease. People at high risk for colon cancer may need to get tested more often and at an earlier age.

What are the signs of colorectal cancer?

People who have polyps or early colorectal cancer often have no signs of it. That’s why having a colonoscopy starting at age 50 is so important. Symptoms of more advanced cancers can include blood in the stool, pencil-thin stools, abdominal pain, or weight loss, among others. By the time symptoms arise, these cancers may be more advanced and require more involved treatments. The earlier a cancer is detected, the better the chances are of cure.

What is Kings County Hospital Center doing about colorectal cancer?

We actively promote colon cancer screening to all of our patients and to our employees, starting at age 50, so that we can detect and remove the abnormalities that can eventually develop into cancers. Prevention is the most effective strategy to deal with cancer.

However, when colon cancer is detected, our cancer care team — composed of surgical oncologists, medical oncologists and radiation oncologists — works together to provide the most current treatments available to help our patients.

In the last five years, Kings County Hospital and all the other Health and Hospitals Corporation (HHC) member hospitals together have conducted more than 100,000 colonoscopies and have removed pre-cancerous polyps from more than 20,000 patients. We are committed to making this life-saving screening test available to all regardless of their health insurance status. We are saving lives.

How do I get screened?

Colon cancer screening is available at all HHC public hospitals at little or no cost. If you don’t have insurance or can’t afford medical care, you may qualify for HHC Options. Visit our website, www.nychhc.org

Dr. Jason Gonsky is director hematology/oncology, Kings County Hospital Center.

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