A colonoscopy may have saved his life

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March is colon cancer awareness month

By Lisa King

Chances are, most people know someone who has died of colon cancer.

This disease, formally known as colorectal cancer, is the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States, and that's a key reason why March was designated National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month by President Clinton in 2000.

Even though he didn't relish the idea of undergoing a colonoscopy, Shelby County Sheriff Mike Armstrong decided he didn't want to take a chance of becoming a statistic.

"When I went for my physical last year, the doctor told me it was time to get it done," he said. "They found two polyps, and the doctor told me they could have turned into cancer if they had not been removed."

The removal of pre-cancerous polyps is absolutely necessary to prevent colon cancer, and the only way one can know if they have polyps is through early screening, a procedure that many people put off.

"It's one of those things you don't want to have to do," said Armstrong, 51. "I guess one reason is because people think it's going to be very unpleasant, and also because they're afraid the doctor is going to find something bad.

"But the thing is, if there is something there, I want to know it so I can deal with it."

In Armstrong's case, he has to have another screening done in 3-to-4 years, because of the presence of polyps, he said.

"The doctor said I am a polyp-maker," he said, with a grimace.

The American Cancer Society says that colon cancer starts with a growth that is not yet cancer. Testing can help your doctor find (and remove) these growths before they become cancerous.

If the test finds that colon cancer has already developed, you have a much better chance of beating it if it is found early

The society's Annual Report to the Nation said that mortality rates from colon cancer have been declining steadily over the past two decades, in part because of the colonoscopy.

From 1998 to 2005, colon cancer cases dropped by 2.8 percent per year for men and 2.2 percent for women. Death rates have fallen by 4.3 percent in both men and women from 2002 to 2005.

Routine screening is recommended for men and women starting at age 50, or earlier testing for those with higher than average risk factors.

The report also says that despite the availability of several options concerning screening, only about half of the U.S. population aged 50 and older has been tested for colon cancer. The report says the main reason why people are not getting screened is because they lack access to affordable health care.

But 48.3 percent of men and women aged 50 to 64 with private insurance have been screened, but only one in five (18.8 percent) of those who lack insurance has been screened.

"Colon cancer is one of the only cancers that can be prevented through regular testing," Dr. Durado D. Brooks said in the report.

Brooks, director of prostrate and colorectal cancer at the American Cancer Society, added that the decline in colon cancer deaths can be attributed to prevention and early detection of the disease through screening and increasing effective treatment.

Last March, the guidelines for colorectal screening, released jointly by the ACS, the U.S. Multi-Society Task Force on Colorectal Cancer and the American College of Radiology, included two new screening tests -- stool DNA and CT colonography, also known as the virtual colonoscopy.

Albert McClure, R.N., director of surgery at Jewish Hospital Shelbyville, said that the tradition colonoscopy is still preferred over the virtual by most people.

"That's because even though the virtual is less invasive, if something is detected, you would still have to have the traditional one done anyway," he said.

But if something is detected through a virtual colonoscopy, it can't be removed except through the traditional method.

McClure said the stool DNA test is also a good screening tool.

"A stool smear to detect blood is also very helpful, easy and not expensive, he said. "You should talk to your physician to see what the best method is for you."

According to the ACS, colon cancer can be present for several years before symptoms develop. Early stage colorectal cancer does not usually have symptoms, so screening is necessary for detection at that point.  

When colorectal cancers are detected at an early, localized stage, the 5-year survival is 90 percent. However, only 39 percent of colorectal cancers are diagnosed at this stage, mostly because of low rates of screening. After the cancer has spread regionally to involve adjacent organs or lymph nodes, the 5-year survival drops to 68 percent.

Armstrong said if the only thing preventing someone from getting screened is fear, they should realize that it's nothing to be afraid of.

"I would advise everyone to have it done," he said. "My experience was smooth and non-painful. The doctors went over with me what was going to happen, and they set me up to prep myself the night before by drinking a couple of containers of liquid.

"Then I went and had the procedure. Everyone was so nice. I didn't even know when happened. The next thing I knew, I was waking up and I didn't feel a thing."

Armstrong said people have an obligation to take care of their health.

"I'm so thankful today that I did it," he said. "When there is something like that that can threaten your life, you have got to think about your family. Early detection has a good cure rate. It worked out great for me, and nobody should let fear keep them from getting it done."

    Symptoms of colon cancer   • Fatigue or weakness • Shortness of breath • Change in bowel habits • narrow stools • Diarrhea or constipation • Red or dark blood in stool • Weight loss • Abdominal pain • Cramps or bloating     Risk Factors • Increasing age, especially over 50 • Family history • Individual history of colon polyps • Obesity • Physical inactivity • Smoking • Heavy alcohol consumption • Too much red meat • Too few fruits and vegetables   Info for second text box                                                        Five Myths About Colon Cancer     Myth: Colorectal cancer is a man's disease.  

Truth: Colorectal cancer is just as common among women as men. Each year, about 150,000 Americans are diagnosed with colorectal cancer, and more than 50,000 die from the disease.

  Myth: Colorectal cancer cannot be prevented.  

Truth: In many cases colorectal cancer can be prevented. Colorectal cancer almost always starts with a small growth called a polyp. If the polyp is found early, doctors can remove it and stop colorectal cancer before it starts. These tests can find polyps : double contrast barium enema, flexible sigmoidoscopy, colonoscopy, or CT colonography (virtual colonoscopy).


Myth: African Americans are not at risk for colorectal cancer.


Truth: African-American men and women are diagnosed with and die from colorectal cancer at higher rates than men and women of any other US. racial or ethnic group.


Myth: Age doesn't matter when it comes to getting colorectal cancer.


Truth: More than 90% of colorectal cancer cases are in people age 50 and older. For this reason, the American Cancer Society recommends you start getting tested for the disease at age 50. People who are at a higher risk for colorectal cancer may need to begin testing at a younger age.


Myth: It's better not to get tested for colorectal cancer because it's deadly anyway.


Truth: Colorectal cancer is often highly treatable. If it is found and treated early, the 5-year survival rate is about 90%. But because many people are not getting tested, only about 4 out of 10 are diagnosed at this early stage when treatment is most likely to be successful.