Dear Dr. Garner,
I have colon cancer, which has spread to other parts of my body, and I am undergoing painful chemotherapy. The worst part is that this all could have been easier to treat had it been found much earlier.
I am now 65, and while my husband went for a colonoscopy when he turned 50, I kept putting it off.
The first sign I had was bleeding when I went to the bathroom. By that time I was also having trouble with bowel movements, as my tumor had grown so big that it was actually causing a blockage.
I hope that others reading this will learn from my mistake. I’ve learned that not getting tested is unfair to yourself, and to your family.
Mom Hoping to Help Others in Howard Beach
Dear Mom Hoping to Help Others,
I am sorry to hear about your situation. Colon cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer deaths in men and women. The good news is that if it is caught early, it can be easily treated. Many lives have been saved with the proper screening.
Colon cancer is cancer of the large intestine (colon), the lower part of your digestive system.
Signs of colon cancer include: a change in bowel habits; a feeling that the bowel doesn’t empty properly; blood in the stool; and stool that looks thinner than normal.
Unfortunately, by the time the above symptoms occur, the cancer is usually advanced.
Most colon cancers occur in people with no risk factors; however, there are some conditions that place a person at higher risk than the rest of the population. These include: a family history of cancer of the colon; having Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis; and having certain inherited conditions, which affect many people in the same family.
For the most part, everyone over 50 years of age is at risk for developing colon cancer – not just those in the high-risk groups mentioned.
Studies continue to show that having regular screening tests for colon cancer reduces deaths dramatically.
The screening tests can identify small growths known as polyps, which turn into cancer after many years. If they are removed early, a person’s life can be saved.
Studies have also shown that adopting certain lifestyle behaviors – maintaining a healthy weight, staying physically active and not smoking – can decrease the risk for colon cancer.
It is possible that making certain changes in your diet, such as consuming fresh fruit, vegetables and whole-grain products, may reduce the risk of colon cancer. All of this, however, can’t even approach the efficacy of a screening test in the diagnosis and treatment of colon cancer.
The screening test, known as a colonoscopy, should be performed at age 50 and repeated once every 10 years for most people. In this test, a small tube is placed in the rectum while you are under mild sedation. It may be performed at an earlier age, depending on your individual situation such as a family history of cancer.
There are other screening tests available, including a yearly test to see if there is blood in the stool.
Remember, polyps take many years to turn malignant so having a colonoscopy every decade starting at age 50 is recommended.
Thank you for writing. I hope your letter will spur people to get this life-saving screening.
Dr. Garner is a Fidelis Care provider who is affiliated with New York Methodist Hospital, Park Slope. He also hosts “Ask the Doctor” on NET-TV, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on Time Warner Channel 97 and Cablevision Channel 30.