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March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month

Posted Date: 3/30/2015
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March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month


            Colorectal cancers strike the colon — a muscular tube in the digestive system about five feet long — or the rectum. Because March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, it’s a good time to talk to your doctor about how you can prevent this disease, which is as common in women as it is in men. Every year, about 140,000 Americans are diagnosed with colorectal cancer; more than 50,000 people die from it.

            The most important message concerning colorectal cancer prevention, says Dr. Sunil Patel, Chief of Gastroenterology at Richmond University Medical Center, is to follow current screening guidelines. “You could diagnose at a treatable stage.”           

Risk Factors

            The risk of getting colorectal cancer increases with age: More than 90 percent of cases occur in people who are 50 years old or older. Another risk factor might be a relative who has had colorectal cancer. “Family history is important,” Dr. Patel says. “It’s one of the things that would make us screen people at an earlier age; we might start at age 40.”

            Having other types of cancer in your body also puts you at increased risk, he says. “If a woman has breast cancer, for example, that can make her more likely to develop colon cancer.”

            Some of the other possible risk factors that physicians think might be associated with colorectal cancer include:          

  • Being overweight or obese, especially for those who carry fat around their waists
  • Not being physically active
  • Drinking alcohol in excess, especially for men
  • Eating a lot of red meat or processed meat (such as bacon or cold cuts)
  • Having a history of inflammatory bowel disease (including ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease)



            No particular food or lifestyle habit has been proven to prevent colon cancer,” shares Dr. Patel, “but I always encourage patients to follow good habits — eating less fat and more fiber, getting regular exercise, not smoking — the same that physicians recommend to maintain optimal health and prevent disease generally.” Habits include:

  • Be physically active for at least 30 minutes at least five days a week
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Don’t smoke
  • If you drink alcohol, have no more than one drink a day for women or two drinks a day for men
  • Eat a diet focused on fruits, vegetables and whole grains
  • Eat less red meat and processed meat products



            Most colorectal cancers begin as precancerous polyps —growths in the lining of the colon or rectum that become cancerous if left untreated. “With polyps or in the early stages of colon cancer, most people are asymptomatic. It’s one of the things I hear from my patients all the time: ‘I have no symptoms, why would I get tested for colon cancer?’ The great thing is if we screen at an early stage, we can basically cure people,” notes Dr. Patel.

            Current screening guidelines recommend regular colonoscopies starting at age 50. The colonoscopy remains the most effective test; it uses a camera attached to thin, flexible tube that allows a doctor to examine the entire colon and rectum. Other screening methods do exist, such as sigmoidoscopy. “It’s similar to colonoscopy, but it only evaluates half the colon, so it’s not optimal,” Dr. Patel says. “Barium enemas may be used for people who aren’t able to be scoped. There’s also what’s known as a virtual colonoscopy: a refined type of CT scan for the colon only. It’s good for picking up big polyps. If you find something, you can’t do anything about it right then. With a colonoscopy, you can biopsy it immediately.”

            Checking for blood in the stool is another method, which Dr. Patel says is the least useful of the screening options. “There can be a lot of false positives and false negatives.”

            The value of regular screening can’t be overstated, Dr. Patel says. If colorectal cancer is found early — or a polyp is found before it becomes cancerous — the treatment can lead to a cure or can prevent the cancer from forming at all.  Because colorectal cancer kills approximately 50,000 people each year, a colonoscopy is recommended for all adults over the age of 50. Staten Island residents who want to learn more or to schedule a colonoscopy, should call 718-818-3290.