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more articles by Brennan, Peter , MD  |  author's bio

Detecting and Curing Colon Cancer

Detecting and Curing Colon Cancer

By Peter Brennan, MD


March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month. This is a good time to talk with your doctor about your risk factors for colon cancer and the benefits of regular screening. Colon cancer remains the second leading cause of cancer death following lung cancer. However, unlike lung cancer, colon cancer can in most cases easily be detected in the early stages with regularly scheduled colonoscopies and very successfully treated.


Are there any new developments relating to colon cancer?


Two very encouraging trends over the past six years have been the steady drop in the number of colon cancer surgeries, and the fact that many of the colon cancer patients requiring surgery are having it performed at an earlier stage of the disease. These trends are an accrued benefit from the previous decade of increased colon cancer screening. During a screening colonoscopy, the gastroenterologist can remove small pre-cancerous polyps from the lining of the intestinal tract, preventing them from becoming cancerous.


Another interesting development has been the adoption of a new approach to preparing for a colonoscopy. Prior to having a colonoscopy, patients have to cleanse their intestinal tract so the gastroenterologist can get a clear look at the walls of the colon (large intestine). Historically, this cleansing process has included drinking large amounts of a special cleansing preparation all at once the night before the colonoscopy, which was hard for some patients to tolerate. With the new cleansing program, called “split dosing,” the fluid preparation is divided into two stages that take place the night before and the morning of the colonoscopy. Split dosing is easier on patients and gives the doctors a better look at the colon.


The new approach has the added benefit of improving the views in both the lower and the upper colon. There has been some question over the years as to whether colonoscopy detects cancer in the upper (also called the right side) as well as the lower colon. While it is true that viewing the upper colon can be more difficult, when the new two-part preparation is followed and the colonoscopy is performed by a board certified gastroenterologist, the ability to view the entire length of the colon is excellent.


At what age should I get my first screening colonoscopy?


If you have no symptoms and no family history of colon cancer, we typically recommend that regular screening colonoscopies begin at age fifty and are repeated every ten years. However, if you have any symptoms of bleeding or unexplained changes in your bowel pattern you may qualify for a colonoscopy at any age. If you have a family history of colon cancer you deserve special scrutiny and should talk with your doctor about beginning regular screening at an earlier age.


At what age should I stop getting screened?


If you have a life span projection of eight years or more, you should continue to discuss colon cancer screening with your primary physician at your annual exam. We rarely perform screening colonoscopies on people past age eighty-five unless there is a family history of extreme longevity.


What steps can I take to reduce my risk for colon cancer?


Dietary surveys and medical studies have shown that people who eat less red meat, take daily calcium supplements or aspirin (aspirin should be supervised by your physician) can reduce their risk for colon cancer by 10-20 percent. People who follow a largely vegetarian diet have a slightly reduced risk for colon cancer. A diet low in animal fat and high in vegetables and fruit is also good for your heart so we recommend this diet to our patients, along with regular screening colonoscopies.


Dr. Brennan is board certified in gastroenterology and serves on the medical staff of Cayuga Medicine. He is in practice with Gastroenterology Associates of Ithaca, where he can be reached at (607) 272-5011.




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