According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the United States. Almost all colon cancer starts in glands in the lining of the colon and rectum. Although the exact cause of colon cancer is uncertain, many begin as benign polyps, which develop slowly into cancer.
In the below webinar, Memorial Hermann-affiliated colon and rectal surgeon Dr. Lucrecia StaAna discusses colon cancer prevention, screening and treatment.
You may have a higher risk for colon cancer if you:
- Are over the age of 50
- Are African-American or of eastern European descent
- Have a personal or family history of colorectal cancer or polyps
- Have inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis)
Memorial Hermann encourages regular colorectal cancer screening exams for at-risk patients, which can lead to early detection and improved treatment outcomes.
Types of Screenings:
Colonoscopy: A colonoscopy is the best screening test for colon cancer. The procedure utilizes a colonoscope to look inside the rectum and colon for polyps, abnormal areas, or cancer.
Fecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) or Fecal Immunochemical Test (FIT): This take-home test may detect small amounts of blood in the stool, which could suggest colon cancer. It is usually ordered along with imaging tests to screen and diagnose colorectal cancer.
In addition, your physician may do blood tests, including a complete blood count (CBC) and liver function tests.
Signs & Symptoms of Colorectal Cancer
If you experience any of the following symptoms, the American Cancer Society recommends visiting a doctor to find the cause and receive treatment, if necessary:
- A change in bowel habits, such as diarrhea, constipation, or narrowing of the stool, that lasts for more than a few days
- A feeling that you need to have a bowel movement that is not relieved by doing so
- Rectal bleeding
- Dark stools, or blood in the stool
- Cramping or abdominal pain
- Weakness and fatigue
- Unintended weight loss
Memorial Hermann Colon Cancer Awareness Month Events
Join us at one of our free community events in honor of Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month:
- Cancer Connect: Tuesday, March 14, 5-7 p.m. at The Health Museum Houston. Click here to register.
- Colon Cancer Awareness - Northeast: Wednesday, March 29, 12-3 p.m. at Memorial Hermann Northeast Hospital. Click here to register.
- Don't Be Fooled by Colorectal Cancer: Saturday, April 1, 9:30-11 a.m. at the Lindig Family Cancer Resource Center, Memorial Hermann Memorial City Medical Center. Click here to register.
- Click here or call 713.222.CARE to schedule your colonoscopy.
- Click here or call 713.222.CARE for assistance finding a primary care physician to discuss your colorectal cancer risk.
- Click here for more information on colonoscopies and colon cancer screening.
Patient Story: Eyvette's Unlikely Colon Cancer Journey
Eyvette Lopez Hetherington was an unlikely candidate for colon cancer. The 44-year-old Houston attorney and mother of two was seemingly healthy and fit, underwent annual physicals and had no family history of colon cancer. Yet, the signs were there.
As a young lawyer in her 20s, Hetherington began experiencing epigastric pain in her upper abdomen, for which she saw a gastroenterologist. When she began seeing blood in her stool, her physician at the time attributed it to a fissure in her colon. A self-described Type A personality, Hetherington chalked up her GI issues to stress and thought she could manage her symptoms through diet. For the next 20 years, her condition would improve, then worsen, again and again, sending her back to her doctor every three to five years.
Fast forward to summer 2015. On a family vacation in Colorado, Hetherington was fatigued. She was seeing more blood in her stool and experiencing upper abdominal pain. When she returned to Houston, she made an appointment with Nancy Behazin, M.D., a gastroenterologist affiliated with Memorial Hermann Ertan Digestive Disease Center in the Texas Medical Center.
Hetherington describes Dr. Behazin as “the best doctor on the entire planet,” adding, “She is thoughtful and conscientious. The initial consultation took about an hour, and the whole time, she just listened.” Dr. Behazin prescribed tests, including lab work, an EGD (upper endoscopy) and a colonoscopy. One test revealed Hetherington’s gall bladder was underperforming and needed to be removed. Hetherington thought she had finally found her culprit. Nonetheless, Dr. Behazin recommended Hetherington undergo the colonoscopy.
Hetherington recalls waking up in the colonoscopy recovery area and the shock she felt upon hearing her diagnosis. “Dr. Behazin explained that she found a tumor in my colon and said, ‘It looks serious. We biopsied it and sent samples to the pathologist. But I have taken the liberty, assuming you’re agreeable, of making an appointment for you with a great surgeon, Dr. Das, who’s right down the street.’”
Shocked and scared, the Hetheringtons immediately headed to the office of Memorial Hermann-affiliated surgeon Bidhan “Biddy” Das, M.D., whose confidence and friendly demeanor they found comforting. He referred Hetherington to Julie Rowe, M.D., an oncologist affiliated with Memorial Hermann Cancer Center. Dr. Rowe ordered a CT scan of Hetherington’s chest and abdomen, to make sure the cancer was localized.
Shortly thereafter, Dr. Das performed surgery to remove Hetherington’s tumor, along with a segment of her colon and the surrounding lymph nodes. The cancer had spread to one of these lymph nodes, indicating Hetherington had stage 3 colon cancer.
Dr. Das performed the surgery laparoscopically, using small instruments inserted through a 1-inch incision in Hetherington’s abdomen, taking great care to minimize disruption of the bowels. Instead of using narcotics for pain control, Dr. Das laparoscopically inserted a needle into Hetherington’s abdominal wall, injecting a local anesthetic to block pain. The combination of these two techniques prevented Hetherington from experiencing a common postoperative complication called ileus that causes the bowels to temporarily shut down, resulting in nausea, vomiting, abdominal discomfort and prolonged recovery time. Hetherington was released from the hospital within 40 hours of her surgery and made a swift recovery.
Three weeks after Hetherington’s surgery, she met with Dr. Rowe to discuss treatment options. Dr. Rowe prescribed the chemotherapy drug oxaliplatin, to be administered intravenously via a port to be worn 24/7. Hetherington completed 11 rounds of chemotherapy in seven months.
As a result of the chemotherapy, Hetherington developed neuropathy, a condition occurring when peripheral nerves become damaged or disrupted, that caused her to lose feeling in her hands and feet. Dr. Rowe put Hetherington in touch with Syed Jafri, M.D., an oncologist affiliated with Memorial Hermann who had recently opened an integrative medicine clinic to complement his oncology practice. On Dr. Jafri’s recommendation, Hetherington began acupuncture treatments, which helped ease the symptoms of her neuropathy.
Integrative medicine is an adjunct to traditional medicine (including chemotherapy) that combines non-traditional methods and techniques, including lifestyle modifications, diet, exercise, acupuncture, herbal remedies, meditation, breathing techniques and spirituality. They can be used to help prevent illness, to help a patient recover from illness and to prevent recurrence of an illness. They are most effective when patients are motivated and, as Dr. Jafri points out, “Cancer is a big motivator.”
Her four physicians unanimously agree that Hetherington is a motivated patient. To reduce her chances of cancer relapse, she resumed exercising, took up yoga, began a regular meditation practice and significantly reduced her intake of red meat, consumption of which has been linked to colon cancer.
Reflecting on her journey, Hetherington says, “It was the worst year of my life. But I had an excellent support network that included my entire family and other parents at my kids’ school, including two who were battling colon cancer themselves. My husband slowed down his demanding work schedule to spend a lot more time with me and the kids. It’s ironic that during this time when I felt so physically terrible and mentally defeated, I also felt tremendously loved and blessed with these incredible people in my life.”
Today, Hetherington is cancer free and feels stronger every day. She’s a big fan of her four physicians and of Memorial Hermann in general. “I appreciate the personalized attention I received. I wasn’t a cog in the machine. I could call any of my doctors, day or night. They were there for me.”
Patient Story: Pearland Resident Is Alive Thanks to Colorectal Screening Test
Pearland resident Kathleen Byrd is one lucky lady. Two years after completing treatment for stage 3 breast cancer, she finally heeded the advice of her oncologist to undergo a screening colonoscopy. At age 52, she learned she had colon cancer.
Fortunately for Byrd, the stage 2 cancer had not spread beyond her colon. A surgeon affiliated with Memorial Hermann Southeast Hospital removed the fist-sized mass, which was undetected on a CT scan Byrd had received 6 months prior to the colonoscopy.
“Colon cancer is truly the silent killer because I had no pain, no symptoms,” says Byrd. “I’m very, very lucky that it was caught early.”
Colorectal Cancer is Treatable in Early Stages
For women in the U.S., colorectal cancer is the third-leading cause of cancer deaths. And for men, it’s the second-leading cause of cancer deaths. But it doesn’t have to be. Strong scientific evidence shows that screening for colorectal cancer, beginning at age 50, saves lives. Individuals at higher risk for this cancer, including African-Americans, males and those with a family history of the disease, should consult their family physician on when to start screenings.
Naveen Surapaneni, M.D., M.P.H., a gastroenterologist affiliated with Memorial Hermann Pearland and Memorial Hermann Southeast Hospitals, performed Byrd’s screening colonoscopy. He says it’s best to have a screening colonoscopy at age 50 even if no symptoms are present because once symptoms exist, the cancer is usually advanced.
Symptoms of colorectal cancer can include a change in bowel habits, rectal bleeding with bright red blood, constant fatigue, unexplained weight loss, a feeling that the bowel is not completely emptying, and abdominal pain or bloating.
Colorectal cancer starts from precancerous polyps that form in the lining of the colon or rectum and grow over time. During a screening colonoscopy, these polyps can be found and removed before they turn into cancer.
“I tell people to think of their body like a car,” says Dr. Surapaneni. “You take your car into the shop for regular maintenance so it doesn’t break down and cost you more time and money to fix later. In the same way, you should take care for your body and undergo a screening colonoscopy at age 50.”
After her 5-centimeter mass was removed, Byrd opted for rigorous screenings instead of chemotherapy. One year after diagnosis, she underwent another colonoscopy and was cancer-free. Today, she vigilantly keeps her appointments with Dr. Surapaneni for follow-up care.
A colonoscopy is the gold standard to diagnose colorectal cancer. This procedure is performed under anesthesia on an outpatient basis and takes roughly two to three hours total, from pre-op to discharge. While some people are apprehensive about the prep for a colonoscopy, Dr. Surapaneni says the newer drinks are more palatable and require less volume consumption than in years past.
Although Byrd procrastinated about her colonoscopy, she definitely advises otherwise.
“Just suck it up and get a screening colonoscopy at age 50,” she says. “I’m living proof that colon cancer can be present without symptoms. If you wait, you’re taking your life in your hands.”
Screening colonoscopies can be conveniently performed at Memorial Hermann Southeast and Memorial Hermann Pearland Hospitals. For a physician referral for a colonoscopy, please call 713.222.CARE (2273).
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