Polyps & Prevention: What You Need to Know About Colorectal Cancer

When colorectal cancer is diagnosed in its early stages – meaning it hasn’t yet spread to the lymph nodes or other areas of the body – more than 90 percent of patients survive at least five years following treatment. For patients whose cancer has metastasized to other organs, though, the five-year relative survival is just under 15 percent. This, doctors say, is why annual screenings and early detection are so important – not just for colorectal cancer but for a host of other diseases and conditions.

Gretel Terrero, M.D., a hematologist and oncologist with Miami Cancer Institute in Plantation, part of Baptist Health South Florida

In a webinar hosted by Miami Cancer Institute as part of National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, hematologist and medical oncologist Gretel Terrero, M.D., shared important information about colon cancer.

Dr. Terrero, who is seeing patients at the Baptist Health Wellness and Medical Complex in Plantation, specializes in the treatment of gastrointestinal cancers, says that colon cancer is the third most common cancer in the U.S. and the second leading cause of cancer deaths. “In the U.S. there were an estimated 150,000 new cases diagnosed in 2021 alone.”

While overall colon cancer rates in the U.S. have declined in recent years, Dr. Terrero says there has been a slight increase for people under 50, with the greatest increase seen among patients between ages 20 to 34. “That’s a real concern, and one of the reasons why screening guidelines have been updated to include colonoscopies starting at age 45 for those with an average risk for colon cancer,” she says.

Dr. Terrero advises that patients with a family history of colon cancer or other risk factors talk to their doctor about when to start screening for colonoscopy, as the recommended age could be earlier than 45. Also, she says, the decision to screen patients 76 and older should be made on an individual basis with their doctor.

Colon cancer often goes unnoticed as it has few or no warning signs, according to Dr. Terrero. “That’s why regular screenings are strongly recommended for everyone age 45 to 75,” she notes. There are different screening tests for colon cancer but she calls the colonoscopy the “gold standard.”

“The goal is to find polyps before they become cancer,” Dr. Terrero says. “Colonoscopies can detect tiny growths in the colon called polyps that have the potential to become cancerous over time.” If the doctor sees any polyps that look suspicious, they can be painlessly removed during the procedure and analyzed in the lab to see if they’re malignant or benign.

According to Dr. Terrero, polyps come in all shapes and sizes. “Some are tubular and sit on a little stalk and are easy to see and remove,” she says. “Others are flat, making them more difficult to remove.” Certain types of polyps, such as adenomas, are at highest risk of becoming cancerous, she adds.

Some people are more at risk for developing colon cancer in their lifetime, Dr. Terrero says, including those with a family history of hereditary polyp disorders, such as Lynch Syndrome, Familiar Adenomatous Polyposis and other hereditary syndromes. There are also a number of other known risk factors for colon cancer, she says.

“Age older than 50, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle with little or no exercise are common risk factors,” Dr. Terrero says. “Patients with irritable bowel disease (IBD) or who have had previous radiation to the abdomen or pelvis are more likely to develop colon cancer, as are Black American and Ashkenazi Jewish ethnic groups.”

For more information about colon cancer, including symptoms to watch for and tips on prevention, Dr. Terrero’s complete webinar can be viewed here (use passcode SCZ&YJ9?).

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