Mary Washington Healthcare urges adults of all ages to remember that early detection of colorectal cancer saves lives
The rate of diagnosis of colorectal cancer in adults under 50 has been rising for decades. The American Cancer Society in 2020 released statistics stating that 12% of colorectal cancers that year would be diagnosed in people under age 50.
This trend was highlighted for many by the death of actor Chadwick Boseman. The “Black Panther” star died in August of colon cancer at the age of 43.
March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and Mary Washington Healthcare wants all adults to know that regular screening through colonoscopies is vital to fighting this disease.
Dr. Daniel Geisler, a colorectal surgeon at Mary Washington Hospital and Stafford Hospital, said colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States when statistics for men and women are combined, but the most preventable through screening.
“It’s all about early detection,” he said.
Screening through regular colonoscopies should start at age 45, Dr. Geisler said. That is younger than the previous recommendation of 50, and Dr. Geisler said the recommended age to begin screenings could come down to 40 in the years to come, reflecting the growing risk of colorectal cancer in younger adults.
Individuals with a first-generation relative who has had colorectal cancer should start screening 10 years before their relative’s age at diagnosis.
Know the symptoms
Early detection through regular screening can help catch and remove polyps—clusters of cells on the walls of the colon or rectum—before they cause symptoms, or before they can develop into cancer.
But individuals should consult their primary care physician or Mary Washington Healthcare’s colorectal cancer specialty team if they experience any persistent change in their bowel habits, such as diarrhea, constipation, rectal bleeding or blood in the stool, cramping, abdominal distension or pain.
According to the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancer is expected to cause about 52,980 deaths during 2021. Although the overall death rate for these cancers has been dropping for decades, deaths from colorectal cancer among people younger than 55 have increased 1% per year from 2008 to 2017.
Fully investigating these symptoms is key, and the team at Mary Washington Healthcare knows the importance of thorough diagnostics.
Dr. Geisler said he recently treated patient in their 30s who had initially been diagnosed with a prolapsed hemorrhoid. After further investigation, Dr. Geisler and his team removed a 4-centimeter polyp from this otherwise healthy, active person’s colon. The biopsy results showed that the polyp would have turned into invasive cancer if left in place.
“If we had waited another year or so this probably would have been an invasive cancer,” Dr. Geisler said. “Fortunately, the patient was very gung-ho about their health, got screened and I can now share the good news that this did not turn out to be malignant.”
Don’t let fear keep you away
Despite what many may think, colonoscopy is an easy process. Patients are sedated, comfortable, and unaware of the procedure as it is taking place.
“We have wonderful anesthetists giving anesthetic for it, and you are 100% comfortable for the procedure,” Dr. Geisler said.
In the past, colonoscopies have gotten a bad rap for the bowel-clearing preparation patients must drink before the procedure. Geisler said this cleanout has come a long way since the days when patients had to consume “a big gallon jug of awfulness.”
“The prep is tremendously better, and much better tolerated,” he emphasized. With his patients, Geisler uses a prep that is mixed into a quart of Gatorade.
“It tastes pretty much like Gatorade,” he said.
Patients do need to have a friend or family member drive them to and from the procedure because they will be sedated.
For those who are nervous, Geisler urges them to talk to a doctor about their fears—because the potential downside of skipping screening is too high to let fear be a barrier.
“If you are the least bit concerned about a colonoscopy, come in for a talk,” he said. “We can put your concerns to rest.”
Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic has caused individuals to put off cancer screenings and other important preventative health procedures due to a fear of contracting the virus. But early detection is so important that you are actually putting yourself at much greater risk by delaying screening.
Mary Washington Healthcare officials stress that facilities are safe, and that every precaution is being taken to ensure individuals can continue to receive these screenings with very little risk of virus exposure.
Be active, eat well
While everybody should be screened for colorectal cancer once they reach the age of 45, choosing a healthy, active lifestyle can reduce your risk.
“Aim for plenty of water and juice every day, aim for plenty of fiber in your diet and get out and be healthy and active,” Dr. Geisler says.
That means choosing high-fiber fruits, vegetables and whole grains over processed foods and meats, and getting regular exercise.
If you are 45 and have not scheduled your first colonoscopy, or if you have a family history or symptoms that might make earlier screenings necessary, consult your primary care physician or call Mary Washington Healthcare’s HealthLink representatives at 540-741-1404. Visit cancer.mwhc.com for more information.
The following screening guidelines are recommended by the Mary Washington Healthcare Regional Cancer Center Colorectal Clinical Team:
- Colonoscopy is recommended as the best method for colorectal cancer screening, and unlike other methods, colonoscopy can prevent colorectal cancer.
- Routine screening starts at age 45 and can continue to age 80-85.
- If you have a first-generation relative with colorectal cancer, your screening should begin ten years before the age of your relative at diagnosis.
- Frequency of screening is based on previous screening findings, genetic predisposition for colorectal cancer and physician recommendations.