March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. Colorectal cancers include cancers of the colon and rectum. It is the second deadliest type of cancer, behind lung cancer. That's the bad news.
The good news is colorectal cancer is highly preventable if people would get colonoscopies. However, only about half of the people who are eligible for the procedure, actually have it done. And when people begin to have symptoms of colorectal cancer, it's often too late.
Emma Tuohy's father would have been so proud to see his little girl attending the prestigious College of William and Mary and to learn she'd just been accepted to law school. But he died of colon cancer when Emma was just 13-years-old.
"It didn't click that he might not be around the rest of my life," she recalled. "I mean you always believe that your parents are invincible. And I knew he was sick, and I didn't like to see him suffering and in pain but it never occurred to me that he would die."
But he did. He was missed on the sidelines at Emma's soccer games. He never saw her violin concerts, heard her sing in a rock band and was not in the audience when Emma had the lead in the high school musical. Emma believes her dad would be alive today if he'd been screened on time for colorectal cancer.
"Which is hard to think about," she said, "But it definitely could have been prevented and I know it started spreading so if they'd been able to catch it earlier it wouldn't have spread."
How Colon Cancer Develops
Colorectal cancer usually develops when a small growth in the colon or rectum called a polyp, develops into a tumor. It causes symptoms like abdominal pain, blood in the stool, thin stools, constipation and sometimes diarrhea.
Dr. William Rudolph is a colon and rectal surgeon with Sentara Surgery Specialists. CBN News spoke with him after a three-hour procedure at Sentara Virginia Beach Hospital in which he removed a cancerous tumor and much of the colon from a 65-year-old patient who had neglected to get a colonoscopy. He said he was pleasantly surprised to discover his patient's cancer hadn't yet spread to the lymph nodes or the liver.
"Unfortunately most patients we see don't have as good luck," he said.
Dr. Rudolph said most of his patients could avoid his operating table if they would have gotten a colonoscopy. This is because during that screening doctors use a small camera inserted in the anus to search the rectum and colon for polyps. If one is detected, it's removed right then, problem solved.
A Painless Procedure
Dr. Rudolph said he believes most people who neglect to get a colonoscopy do so because they incorrectly believe it will hurt.
"Colonoscopy really isn't painful," he explained. "Colonoscopy is done under sedation. We give you some really good medications and, in fact, most of my patients either fall asleep or don't remember anything about their procedures," he said.
In order to see inside the colon during the colonoscopy, the colon needs to be clean. Therefore, patients have to take a laxative the day before the procedure.
"And those laxatives, at least in the past, have been pretty harsh," Dr. Rudolph said. "But we have newer laxatives, in fact, the prep that I usually give to patients are pills. They're very easy to swallow and yes, you have to spend an evening in the bathroom, but it's much better than spending the next seven days with me like this patient today who underwent surgery for colon cancer."
When to Get a Colonoscopy
People need to get their first colonoscopy at age 50. But if there is a family history of colorectal cancer, they need to start at age 40. If it's polyp-free, the next screening isn't for another 10 years. However, if a polyp is detected and removed patients need to get another colonoscopy in three years.
Dr. Irving Pike, a gastroenterologist with Gastroenterology Consultants in Virginia Beach, Va., said he would diagnose colorectal cancer a lot less if everyone who is eligible for a colonoscopy would get one. But right now that rate is only 55 percent.
"Colonoscopy, unlike other screening tools for different types of cancer, is a procedure that prevents colon cancer," he said. "It's not an early detection tool, it could be, but the goal is to prevent colon cancer."
Diet and Stress
In addition to getting a colonoscopy, people can prevent colorectal cancer by avoiding red meat, increasing their intake of fiber - especially from fresh fruits and vegetables - by exercising at least 30 minutes five times a week and by managing stress.
In his book, Younger Next Year, Manhattan internist Dr. Harry Lodge explains how over time, negative emotions like frustration, anger, loneliness, and depression suppress our cells' natural ability to fight cancer, because stress releases two hormones called adrenaline and cortisol.
"They turn off the parts of our body that are built to repair us, to redo the damage that comes from daily life that keeps us young and nourished and healthy," he said.
Effective stress busters include strengthening your spiritual life and getting involved in your community.
So if more people get their colonoscopies, eat right, exercise and reduce their anxiety, fewer children would lose their parents far too early.