Health Challenge for Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month

Here’s my personal 90-day health challenge. During the next three months, I plan to tackle the preventive and cancer screenings that I’ve been putting off. A colonoscopy tops my medical to-do list.

“A colonoscopy is a tool for prevention,” says Eduardo Ruan, M.D., a gastro health specialist affiliated with several Baptist Health hospitals and the Galloway Endoscopy Center. “The exam enables your doctor to detect precancerous polyps, which are small growths in the colon. During the exam, the polyps can be removed long before they become cancerous.”

March is, after all, National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, a 31-day period created to educate us about cancer of the colon and rectum. Colorectal cancer strikes all races and genders. In fact, of all the cancers that equally affect men and women, colorectal cancer is the No. 1 killer, according to federal data.

“Colorectal cancer is an equal opportunity disease,” Dr. Ruan says.

Elevated Risk Factors

When it comes to colon cancer, I have a triple dose of elevated risk factors based on my age, race and family medical history. I check the box for each of these risk factors:

Age: More than 90 percent of colorectaI cases are diagnosed in patients 50 and older, and the risk gets higher with age, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Therefore, it’s important to be screened after age 50.
Race: African-Americans have a greater risk.
Family history: Your risk factor is higher if someone in your immediate family (a parent or a sibling) had colorectal cancer, especially if they developed the disease at an early age. If this has happened in your family, Dr. Ruan recommends that you get screened earlier than age 50.

Here are other facts about colon cancer:

How does colorectal cancer begin?

“It starts with a benign polyp. Fortunately, polyps can be detected and removed,” Dr. Ruan says.

“Screening tests also can find colorectal cancer early, when treatment often leads to a cure,” according to a report from the CDC. “Colorectal cancer screening saves lives, but many people are not being screened according to national guidelines.”

What are the different types of screening for colorectal cancer?

There are several tests that can be used to detect colorectal cancer, according to Rodolfo Pigalarga, M.D., a colorectal surgeon at West Kendall Baptist Hospital.

Screening includes:
Stool tests: There are different tests that can detect blood in your stool, even when blood is not visible to the eye. These tests are called: fecal occult blood test, fecal immunochemical test or stool guaiac test.
Colonoscopy: A colonoscopy is considered the gold standard of colorectal screening tests, Dr. Pigalarga says. For this test, a tiny camera is inserted into the rectum of a sedated patient. The camera is attached to a long fibro-optic tube and records the insides of the colon and lower intestines.

During a colonscopy, polyps are detected and are removed on the spot by a small cutting device (a snare).

How do you prepare for a colonoscopy?

A clean colon makes it possible for the medical team to detect polyps. To clean out the colon, you’ll be instructed to consume a liquids-only diet the day before the scheduled procedure. Other preparations include taking laxatives the evening before.

How can risk be reduced?

By turning up the dial on the amount and intensity of your physical exercise, you can reduce your risk of developing colorectal cancer. Other tips:
• Avoid excess weight around your abdomen or midsection.
• Do not over drink.
• Stop smoking.

A cause-and-effect link between smoking and colorectal cancer was discussed in The Health Consequences Smoking—50 Years of Progress, a report issued this year by the U.S. Surgeon General.

What are the signs of colorectal cancer?

Colorectal cancer can be a silent disease, and you may have little or no signs of polyps or cancer, Dr. Ruan says. And that’s why exams are so important.

“You want to get screened when you’re healthy. If you wait until there are signs and symptoms, the cancer could be in a late or advanced stage, and it might be too late to cure.”

Regardless of your age, the following signs and symptoms are red flags, according to Dr. Pigalarga:

• Blood in the stool.
• Rectal bleeding.
• Unexplained or unusual weight loss.
• Anemia that is not attributable to other conditions.
• Changes in color, shape or frequency of bowel movements.

Ugh. This is not an easy topic to write or even think about. Irrationally, I’ve avoided colorectal screening tools like a toddler avoiding potty training. But this month—Colorectal Awareness Month, I’ve learned about the power of preventive medicine, especially a colonoscopy—a medical procedure that can detect and remove pre-cancerous growths.

Inspired, I am challenging myself to schedule a colonoscopy within the next 30 days.

“Come to the office and talk,” says Dr. Pigalarga to those of who are shy, hesitant or squeamish about our colorectal parts. “It’s important to start the conversation.”

Five decades ago, I conquered potty training. I can do this.

Healthcare that Cares

With internationally renowned centers of excellence, 12 hospitals, more than 27,000 employees, 4,000 physicians and 200 outpatient centers, urgent care facilities and physician practices spanning across Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties, Baptist Health is an anchor institution of the South Florida communities we serve.

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