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Colorectal Cancer is Highly Preventable

April 17, 2012

Washington Hospital Offers Leading-Edge Cancer Care

Most people fear a diagnosis of cancer, yet convincing them to be screened for one of the most preventable cancers there is can be difficult. Colorectal cancer is common, yet highly preventable. Excluding skin cancers, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women. The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 143,000 people in this country will be diagnosed with the disease this year alone.

"Let's be serious, the screening for colorectal cancer is not a walk in the park, but it's not that bad either and it can save your life," said Dr. Arun Srivatsa, a local gastroenterologist and member of the Washington Hospital medical staff. "With new technology, our ability to detect colorectal cancer is better than ever. Washington Hospital's affiliated surgery center has the most up-to-date high-definition imaging equipment for colonoscopy and is the only facility in the Tri-City area that offers this. High definition provides more details and we can see polyps much easier."

Most of the time, colorectal cancer begins as a microscopic polyp on the wall of the colon, part of the large intestine, or in the rectum, he explained. A colonoscopy is a screening method that allows physicians to see the inside the rectum and colon using a small tube with a camera on the tip. If polyps are present, they are usually removed during the colonoscopy, preventing them from becoming cancerous.

Get Screened

"Both men and women should get a colonoscopy beginning at age 50," Srivatsa said. "But the good news is you won't need to have another one for five to 10 years depending on if you have polyps. It takes polyps that long to develop into cancer. If you are at high risk for colorectal cancer, your physician may want you to start screening before age 50."

If you have a strong family history of colon cancer or were diagnosed with colon cancer under the age of 50, you may want to talk to your doctor about a referral to the Washington Hospital Cancer Genetics Clinic. Colorectal cancer can be hereditary and there is a gene mutation that can indicate whether you are at risk, Srivatsa said. But it's not really clear what causes colorectal cancer and screening is the best way to prevent it.

"Eating right, exercising, and avoiding tobacco and excessive drinking can help to reduce your risk," he added. "Eating too much red and processed meat seems to raise your risk for the disease. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables and fiber seems to lower the risk."

Generally there are no symptoms associated with colorectal cancer until the cancer is at a more advanced stage. That's why it's important for healthy people to be screened.

"People think they are not going to get colorectal cancer because they feel good, eat well, and are regular," Srivatsa said. "But that's a myth. By the time you have weight loss, belly pain, and bleeding, the cancer has progressed. With a colonoscopy, we can actually stop the development of cancer before it starts."

About 30 percent of people over age 50 have polyps and about 5 percent of those will develop into cancer, he added. Death rates from colorectal cancer have dropped significantly for both men and women in the last 20 years due to screening and more effective treatments, according to the American Cancer Society.

Infusion Center

"Once colorectal cancer is diagnosed, it is treated with a combination of surgery and possibly chemotherapy," said Dr. Vandana Sharma, a local oncologist and a member of the Washington Hospital medical staff. "If the cancer is diagnosed at an early stage, we can treat it with surgery alone. However, if the cancer is very advanced or has spread outside of the colon, then chemotherapy is needed."

Tri-City residents have access to state-of-the-art cancer care at Washington Hospital's Sandy Amos, R.N. Infusion Center. The center provides the latest cancer treatments and was designed with the patient in mind, Sharma said. Patients are treated in a private infusion area with internet access and a personal television. It's a comfortable setting for both the cancer patient and their caregiver, she added.

"It's really a wellness center for patients," she said. "With colorectal cancer, the treatment course can be long, requiring an IV drip every two to three weeks for six months or longer. That's why it's so important to make patients as comfortable as possible and make sure their needs are met."

About 30 percent of the colorectal patients diagnosed at Washington Hospital present with stage III disease, which means they will need chemotherapy for six months, according to Sharma. She said 16 percent are diagnosed with stage IV cancer, which is more advanced, and will require chemotherapy for the rest of their lives to slow the progression of the disease.

The Infusion Center is a centralized place where cancer patients' health care team can coordinate their medical care, Sharma explained. They have access to a nurse navigator who can connect them to the care and services they need such as support groups, nutrition education services, and counseling.

"We offer world-class cancer prevention and treatment services right here in the Tri-City area," she added. "You don't have to travel to other destinations; the best cancer care available today is here in your own backyard."

Learn More About Washington Hospital's Cancer Care Services

For more information about cancer prevention and treatment services available at Washington Hospital, visit www.whhs.com/cancer. To learn more about the Sandy Amos, R.N. Infusion Center, visit www.whhs.com/infusion-center.