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Cancer can be a scary word to hear, but with the advances in medicine and a focus on prevention, there is more hope than ever for patients.

Colorectal cancer in particular is more treatable than in years past, and more and more patients are surviving the disease. But the first line of defense for anyone when it comes to any type of cancer is information and education.

Colorectal cancer is the third most common type of non-skin cancer in men and in women. According to the National Cancer Institute, there will be more than 143,000 colon and rectal cancer cases combined in 2012. Overall, these rates are on the decline nationally, but that is not a reason to remain less watchful over your colorectal health.

Risk factors for colorectal cancer are age, family history, gender, a personal history of inflammatory bowel disease and race. These are the things you can’t control; however, there are things you can do to help reduce your risk of colorectal cancer. Risk reducers include avoiding tobacco, eating a low-fat diet, exercising on a regular basis and limiting your alcohol intake.

Screening to detect early stage disease is very important. In most cases colorectal cancer develops with no symptoms, beginning as non-cancerous polyps, which are grape-like growths that line the colon and rectum. Routine colorectal screening tests to detect these polyps are the most effective risk reduction tool for preventing colorectal cancer.  In fact, researchers recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine reveal that the death rate from colorectal cancer was cut by 53 percent in those who had colonoscopies and whose doctors removed precancerous polyps.

Those who have a family history of the disease should consider screening beginning at age 40; others should consider screening beginning at age 50. Your physician may suggest one or more tests for colorectal cancer screening, including a standard or virtual colonoscopy, a fecal occult blood test or a sigmoidoscopy. What’s most important is to have a detailed conversation with your physician about what screening is best for you personally and weigh various factors; these factors range from the preparation required for the test, the accuracy of the test, or the follow-up care after the test.

For those who are diagnosed with colorectal cancer, surgery is the most common treatment for all stages of the disease. Laparoscopic and minimally invasive surgeries have considerably advanced over the years and can be attractive options to patients because of the shortened recovery times.

Treatment after surgery depends on what stage the cancer was at diagnosis. Advanced stages – Stage 3 and 4 – will more than likely need chemotherapy. The majority of patients with earlier stage disease – Stage 0 through 2 – will not need chemotherapy, although there are always variables.

It’s very encouraging to know that many new avenues have opened up when it comes to colorectal cancer screening and treatment. By having a conversation with your physician, you can both discuss what course of action is best for you moving forward to protect you and your colorectal health.

Dr. Pathak is a board-certified colorectal surgeon who is fellowship trained in colon and rectal surgery. He is affiliated with Sutter Independent Physicians and cares for patients at Sutter Roseville Medical Center.

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