By: Heather Yeo, MD, MHS
March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness month an important time to talk about Colorectal Cancer, because it is a time of national focus and provides an opportunity for education and prevention for a common, but often “hidden” form of cancer.
One of the reasons that I decided to spend my life treating colorectal cancer is because of the exciting progress that has been made in its detection, understanding, and treatment over the last decade and the potential for even greater progress on the horizon. While I deal with colorectal cancer every day, as I am caring for my patients, I am always researching ways to improve their care and quality of life.
A few key points I would like patients to think about:
Prevention is Key.
There are certain risk factors that we know put individuals at higher risk, for example, consumption of red meat, smoking, and obesity all put patients at higher risk. Understanding family risk factors is important as well, first degree relatives with colon cancer, BRCA mutations, or any hereditary cancer syndrome should discuss their risk with a genetic counselor. There is some evidence that frequent long term aspirin use in individuals at risk may slow polyp formation and decrease the risk of colon cancer.
Colorectal cancer is the second most common cancer in the United States, affecting men and women of all ages. While it is most common after the age of 60, due to screening, it has been decreasing overall in the US population. Screening colonoscopy is recommended for all adults starting at the age of 50 or 10 years before any first degree relatives were diagnosed in those with a family history.
However, for unknown reasons, early onset cancer is on the rise, so don’t ignore symptoms in young patients, particularly those that don’t go away after treatment.
Treatments are effective for localized cancer.
The good news is that cancers that are detected early are often cured with surgery alone. Those that have spread locally still have very good cure rates, but may require chemotherapy (you usually don’t lose your hair with newer medications available). When cancer is found at more advanced stage, medication can help slow their spread and certain measures can help people have good quality of life.
There is nothing to be ashamed of.
Colorectal cancer is not sexually transmitted or contagious, people of all ages, races and cultures are at risk. For many people there is a stigma associated with it because they are embarrassed to talk about digestive problems. I think the most important advice I can give, is to not ignore your symptoms. Colorectal surgeons and surgical oncologists are specially trained to deal with surgical problems of the GI tract and will treat you with respect and dignity. Because this is a common cancer, there are resources, support groups, and integrative therapies that may help you deal with the disease. Don’t be afraid to ask your physician for some of these resources. I have included some helpful links below.
Society of Surgical Oncology Colon and Rectal Cancer Page
American Cancer Society
Colon Cancer Alliance
National Cancer Institute – Surveillance Epidemiology and End results
Heather Yeo, MD, MHS, is Assistant Professor of Surgery and Assistant Professor of Public Health at Weill Cornell Medical College and Assistant Attending Surgeon at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. She is board-certified in general surgery, colon and rectal surgery and complex general surgical oncology. Dr. Yeo has a Master’s in Health Services Research and is focused on surgical outcomes and quality improvement in Gastrointestinal Cancer Surgery. Dr. Yeo became involved with AWS after receiving the 2013 AWS-Ethicon Fellowship Grant and is currently a co-chair of the AWS Communications Committee.
Our blog is a forum for our members to speak, and as such, statements made here represent the opinions of the author and are not necessarily the opinion of the Association of Women Surgeons.