Stop stalling: Screening can spot colorectal cancer before it’s too late

In In The News by Barbara Jacoby

By: Danielle Braff


Just a few weeks after she turned 17, Danielle Burgess was diagnosed with colon cancer.

Burgess had been noticing blood in her stool for several years, but she shrugged it off after consulting Dr. Google and self-diagnosing hemorrhoids.

By the time she went to the doctor to have a colonoscopy, she was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer.

“It wasn’t great but they gave me a lot of treatment options,” said Burgess of Kansas City, Mo.

Six months later she was cancer-free. Doctors continued to monitor her colon (large intestine) every three years. In 2009, when she was 25, a growth on her colon once again tested positive for cancer.

“Luckily, they caught it early,” said Burgess, now 32.

Largely preventable

Colorectal cancer, a malignancy that occurs in the colon or rectum, is a leading cause of cancer deaths. This year, it’s expected to claim the lives of nearly 50,000 people in the United States.

It’s also largely preventable. Screening tests can detect and remove abnormalities before they have a chance to turn cancerous — or spot problems in the early stages, when thedisease is more responsive to treatment.

The American Cancer Society and other groups say that screening for most men and women should begin at age 50. Even so, many choose to ignore this advice. Roughly one-third of the country’s eligible adults haven’t been screened for colorectal cancer as recommended by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC estimates that if everyone age 50 and older had regular testing, at least 60 percent of deaths from this cancer could be avoided.

“In nearly every case, colon cancer begins with a small growth called a polyp, which over time turns into a large polyp, and eventually turns into cancer,” said Dr. David Greenwald, director of clinical gastroenterology and endoscopy at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. “This process takes many years to occur; if polyps are removed when they are small or even when they are big, but before they turn into cancer, colon cancer is prevented.”

If found in its earliest stages and if the cancer hasn’t spread, the survival rate beyond 5 years is 90 percent, said Durado Brooks, managing director of cancer control intervention for the American Cancer Society. If it has already spread, the survival rate drops to 12 percent beyond 5 years.

“Our treatments are much, much more effective at the early stage,” Brooks said.

There are numerous ways to screen for colorectal cancer, and several organizations have issued their own guidelines (see accompanying story).

Watch for symptoms

People also need to be vigilant about symptoms — no matter what their age.

Just before Susan Cohan’s 40th birthday in 2002, Cohan experienced stomach pain and rectal bleeding. She saw several doctors who prescribed laxatives rather than referring her to a gastroenterologist.

Cohan ended up in the emergency room in incredible pain. She was diagnosed with advanced stage colon cancer and told she had a couple of months to live, said her father, David Cohan, president of the Baltimore-based Susan Cohan Colon Cancer Foundation.

“Susan died two years later after a heroic battle,” her father said. “We urge anyone regardless of age with symptoms such as abdominal pain, bleeding or continuous constipation to get screened for colon cancer.”