March is Colon Cancer Awareness month. ThirdAge spoke with Andrew Spiegel, CEO of the Colon Cancer Alliance about the disease that is the second leading cause of cancer deaths among men and women in this country.
First, Spiegel shared some several important facts about colon cancer: “Almost 150,000 people are diagnosed each year and more than 50,000 will die from this disease. And although it is often thought of as a disease of older men, it affects both men and women equally.”
He also pointed out that in its earlier and more curable stages, colon cancer has few symptoms.“Unfortunately the number one symptom is no symptom,” explains Spiegel, whose mother died of the disease. “Far too often we hear of cases where people find out they have colon cancer when it is in an advanced stage.” But he also noted colon cancer is different from other cancers in one very significant way. “It is the only disease where screening can prevent the disease,” he said.
Colorectal cancer usually starts from polyps in the colon or rectum. A polyp is a growth that over time can turn into cancer. Screening tests can find polyps, so they can be removed before they turn into cancer. Screening tests can also find colorectal cancer.in an early stage. Over 90% of those diagnosed when the cancer is found at a local stage (confined to colon or rectum) survive more than five years and the chance of being cured is good. Recent studies have also confirmed that colonoscopies can effectively reduce death rates.
“Nowadays more people are getting screened but there are still not enough,” Spiegel said. “We advise that people get a screening test at 50. People with a family history or with inflammatory bowel disease should be screened earlier.” He had his first screening test at 35 and had another at age 40.“At 46, they found a polyp. I may be a classic example of someone with a family history of cancer. In a way, that screening test where the polyp was removed could have saved my life.”
But why don’t people get screened? Although there is some discomfort in the preparation for the test, its value seems indisputable. Spiegel concedes there is the embarrassment factor. “But we say don’t be embarrassed to death. In a way, it suffers from the same problem breast cancer had. People don’t want to talk about it. But it is changing.” Still, he agrees it would be valuable if celebrities would talk about having the disease or having relatives who have battled colon cancer.
This month the Colon Cancer Alliance, which is the leading national patient advocacy organization, is working on a series of programs to increase awareness of the disease and encourage early screenings. One such program is a partnership with Ducolax. .A portion of proceeds from the purchase of Dulcolax products supports CCA community screening programs. The Colon Cancer Alliance also provides information and education, offers activities for patients and families, and supports research. Click here to find out more.
“There is good news today even for those who have advanced cancers. There are more drugs and people are living longer and healthier lives even with the disease,” Speigel said. “But I want to say again that while the idea of having a colonoscopy may not be appealing to everyone, get screened. Encourage your family and friends to be screened. A colonoscopy can be a lifesaver.”
Myrna Blyth is Editor-In-Chief of ThirdAge.