Health Hub: Colorectal Cancer is 90 percent CURABLE
First, the bad news: Colorectal cancer, which has claimed the lives of millions of Americans, is the second-leading cause of cancer death in the United States. It is estimated 7% of men and women in the United States will develop colorectal cancer during their lifetime. But the good news, says Ahmed Zakari, MD, Medical Director of the Cancer Institute of Florida’s Gastrointestinal Oncology Program, is that advances in screening techniques and improvements in treatments have resulted in a dramatic drop in colorectal cancer deaths. hypertension and high cholesterol,” he says.
Early detection is key.
"No one looks forward to a colonoscopy, but everyone has to do it, and it’s not as bad as people think,” says Dr. Zakari. “ These days, prepping for the test is far easier than even a few years ago, and the colonoscopy itself is performed under semi-sedation with the patient’s comfort and dignity in mind.” What hasn’t changed is the critical importance of a colonoscopy, he adds. “Colorectal cancer shouldn’t be the second-leading cause of cancer death in the U.S.,” he says. “It’s the most preventable! And because colon cancer can develop even with no signs or symptoms, a regular colonoscopy is the best method for finding pre-cancerous polyps. Early detection is key to survival.”
A colorectal polyp can be benign, or non-cancerous, or malignant. A malignant cancer can spread to other parts of the body and damage them. Elizabeth Montgomery of TV’s Bewitched, died of colorectal cancer in 1995 after ignoring her symptoms of abdominal discomfort and extreme fatigue, and avoiding diagnosis. By the time she went to be screened, cancer had spread from her colon to her liver and lungs. She died eight weeks later.
Family history of colorectal cancer can also play a role (though it’s entirely possible to develop colorectal cancer with no family history of the disease). Charles Schulz, the creator of the Peanuts cartoon, died of colon cancer in 2000. He had experienced no symptoms of the disease but did not want to be tested even though his mother, two uncles and an aunt died of colon cancer. His reticence proved deadly. When physicians discovered his tumor, the cancer had spread to his stomach lining. “There’s no need to be embarrassed or ashamed during a colonoscopy,” Dr. Zakari says. “It’s your doctor’s job to discuss these lifesaving screens, and every effort is made to help patients feel more comfortable during the painless procedure.”
What if something is found?
“Treatment for colorectal cancer depends partly on the stage of the cancer when it is detected,” says Dr. Zakari. In fact, noninvasive colorectal cancer may be treated by only removing a suspicious polyp during a colonoscopy. For stages I, II and III cancer, more extensive surgery is needed to remove the part of the colon that is cancerous.
In general, treatments may include:
- Chemotherapy to kill cancer cells
- Surgery (most often a colectomy) to remove cancer cells
- Radiation therapy to destroy cancerous tissue
Colorectal cancer, when diagnosed early, is among the most treatable types of cancer. The five- year survival rate for all stages of colorectal cancer is estimated to be between 50-55 %. “Hence, this is why early detection and early treatment is so essential,” says Dr. Zakari. “A colorectal screening can make all the difference.”
When it does, symptoms can include:
- Changes in bowel habits
- Diarrhea or constipation
- A feeling that the bowel does not empty properly
- Blood in feces that makes stools look black
- Bright red blood coming from the rectum
- Pain and bloating in the abdomen
- A feeling of fullness in the abdomen, even after not eating for a while.
- Fatigue or tiredness
- Unexplained weight loss
- Unexplained iron deficiency
Ahmed Zakari, MD, is a board-certified hematology and oncology physician and is a member of the American Society of Clinical Oncology and the American Society of Hematology. Dr. Zakari is the Director of the Gastrointestinal Oncology Program at Florida Hospital Cancer Institute and chairs the Division of Hematology in the Department of Internal Medicine at Florida Hospital. Also, he is an Associate Professor at UCF College of Medicine.
Learn more at FHMedicalGroup.com or call (407) 303-9200.
Florida Hospital Medical Group is the Orlando area’s most comprehensive multi-specialty medical group practice. With nearly 600 board-certified physicians, our group provides patients with a broad range of medical and surgical services across more than 40 medical specialties.