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The Truth About Colon Cancer: LRH Oncologist Separates Facts from Common Myths

Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States, and yet there are still plenty of myths and misunderstandings about it.

Here, Dr. Zeeshan Tariq, a medical oncologist with Lake Region Healthcare, helps separate facts about colorectal cancer from common myths.

Myth: Colon cancer is a ‘man’s disease.’

Colorectal cancer is just as common among women as men, according to the American Cancer Society. Each year, about 140,000 Americans are diagnosed with colorectal cancer, and more than 50,000 die from it.

On the other hand, men – especially African American males – do tend to develop more aggressive forms of colorectal cancer. Although no one is exactly sure why this is, Tariq believes this may partly be because African American men might not have as easy of access to healthcare facilities or insurance, which means their disease would be diagnosed at a more advanced stage.

Myth: Colon cancer is genetic, so there’s really nothing you can do to prevent it.

Genetics are indeed a powerful indicator in determining whether you get colorectal cancer, but they aren’t the only factor.

The average American has a 5 percent chance of developing cancer of the colon or rectum over a lifetime. But if they have a first-degree relative who has it – say, a parent, brother or child – that chance jumps to 10 percent over a lifetime, Tariq says.

Families may also possess certain gene mutations and syndromes, which make them so vulnerable to the disease that all first-degree family members are urged to get screened – some at as young as age 10, Tariq says. (As this is a typically slow-growing cancer that can take up to 10 years to develop from pre-cancerous lesion  to cancer stage, doctors advise family members of first-degree relatives with colon cancer to get their first screening 10 years before the cancer patient was diagnosed.)

Even so, environmental factors can’t be dismissed. Modernized nations like the United States, many European countries and Australia see much higher rates of colon cancer. One of the contributors to this could be their highly refined and processed diets, Tariq says.

Other possible risk factors could include a diet that’s heavy on red meat but light on vegetables, heavy drinking (more than three drinks daily), smoking, a sedentary lifestyle and obesity.

Myth: Colon cancer is asymptomatic, so it’s usually diagnosed when it’s too late.

It’s true that 80 percent of cases of colorectal cancer are asymptomatic. But this is also usually a slow-developing cancer, and early-detection and treatment methods just keep getting better.

The location of the cancer also may affect whether or not you have symptoms. For instance, if the polyp or cancer is on the left side of the colon – which leads to the rectum – you may notice some bleeding. Regardless of where the cancer is located, you may also notice vague systems such as abdominal pain, poor appetite and fatigue.

This is why colonoscopies are so essential. Screening people between the ages of 50 and 75 for colorectal cancer is so effective at preventing deaths that the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) gives it an “A” rating, higher than its ratings for breast and prostate cancer screening.  

On the other hand, polyps and pre-cancerous lesions still need to be detected and treated. “Once you have cancer, it’s cancer,” Tariq says.

It’s typically recommended that you get your first colonoscopy at age 50 – then every 10 years after that. The exception is if you are in a high-risk group (for example, your family has a history of colon cancer).

While the colonoscopy is currently the gold standard for detecting polyps or cancer, medical science has developed several other alternatives.

One of those is the sigmoidoscopy, which involves using a flexible, hollow, lighted tube – attached to a tiny video camera – to see the entire rectum (but less than half of the colon). The sigmoidoscopy takes less time than a colonoscopy and may not require a sedative. It is always done in conjunction with a fecal occult blood test, which determines whether there is blood in the stool. A sigmoidoscopy needs to be done more often – once every five years.

MYTH: Once you are diagnosed with colon cancer, it is usually terminal.

In fact, treatment of colon cancer has never been more precise or more effective than it is now.

Again, the increased education about the disease and the improved screening methods means more irregularities are being spotted before they turn into advanced cancers.

But once a polyp becomes cancerous, the treatment is much more sophisticated.

One of the major breakthroughs has been the use of monoclonal antibodies, which can be designed to target and attack specific antigens (proteins) found in cancer cells. These antibodies can be artificially replicated in a lab and used in conjunction with chemotherapy. Once linked to chemotherapy drugs, these antibodies will target only cancerous cells – which lessens the chemotherapy’s damage to cells in other parts of the body. (Consequently, the patient will experience fewer side effects, such as nausea and hair loss.)

Due to new interventions like these, “we have seen a dramatic increase in survival of colon cancer,” Tariq says.

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