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Screenings Catch Cancer Early

A big misconception about colorectal cancer is that only males over 50 must worry about developing the disease. Colorectal cancer is a topic most people don’t want to consider. The symptoms and screening procedures can be uncomfortable to discuss. Although there is generally little or no discomfort from a colonoscopy, a screening process using a long, flexible instrument to examine the lining of the colon and rectum, some patients feel anxious about the procedure.

However, Alfred Cohen, M.D., professor of surgery and the director of the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center, says not talking to a physician about colorectal cancer could be a big mistake.

“Many women think they are not at risk because this disease affects only males,” Cohen says. “In fact, the disease affects both men and women equally.”

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms associated with colorectal cancer include rectal bleeding, changes in bowel habits, and development of unexplained anemia. However, screening is still important even if there are no symptoms.

“Most patients do not have any symptoms at all. Just because you feel well does not mean you are well,” Cohen says. “Early detection combined with the removal of benign polyps can reduce the potential for developing colorectal cancer as much as 95 percent.”

Age 50 is the time for males and females to begin annual colorectal screening, or at 40 if there is a strong family history.

Risk factors

In addition, certain lifestyle choices, such as being overweight, drinking alcohol, smoking, and lack of exercise may increase the risk.

“Having a relatively low-fat diet and eating little red meat may decrease the risk of developing the disease,” Cohen says.

Treatment options

Aside from radiation treatments and chemotherapy, surgery is often a necessary treatment.

The surgery may affect sexual and bowel functions in some patients. Another side effect, although fewer today than in previous years, is the necessity of a colostomy bag. Because of side effects of treatment, preserving quality of life is an important issue.

New studies show there may be more help in the fight against colorectal cancer.

Frequent, lower doses of radiation have been found to be quite effective. Cohen is currently involved in a study using a chemotherapy and vaccine combination directed at colon cancer cells to improve patients’ immune response systems.

“Researchers are examining the use of aspirin in the treatment of colon cancer. Taking 800 milligrams of vitamin E, as well as 800 milligrams of calcium per day, may help prevent colorectal cancer,” Cohen says.

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