By Gary Walker
March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month and the chief of medicine and chief of the gastrointestinal research program at the John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica says that while many men and women might fear the disease, it can often be averted by a simple procedure.
Dr. Anton Bilchik does hundreds of surgeries annually on patients affected by colon cancer, but a procedure called a colonoscopy can not only detect the potential or existence of cancer but can also give those who are cancer-free peace of mind.
“There is a great deal of fear that a colonoscopy may cause damage or a rupture,” said Bilchik. “But it is a very quick and safe procedure.”
Bilchik recommends anyone who is over the age of 50 to have a colonoscopy screening.
“The reason that we use a colonoscopy is to look for polyps,” the doctor explained. “Studies indicate if polyps are removed, cancer usually can be avoided.”
A colonoscopy entails an examination of the large and small intestine with a fiber optic camera on a flexible tube that is passed through the anus.
Colorectal, or colon cancer, originates from uncontrolled cell growth in the colon or rectum. It affects males and females alike, says Bilchik, and is the second most common cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States.
According to Bilchik, diet seems to play an important role in avoiding colon cancer.
“There are recent studies that show that lifestyle, diet and exercise can reduce the chance of (being afflicted with) colon cancer,” he said. “Diets that have a high concentration of fiber seem to help prevent it.”
The doctor pointed to research conducted in Africa, where many people have fiber-rich diets and a very low number of cases of colorectal cancer have been reported.
Smoking, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle are some of the risk factors associated with colon cancer, but Bilchik says how people become afflicted with the disease is largely unknown.
“We don’t know the cause,” he acknowledged. “In most cases of colon cancer, there are no symptoms.”
Surgery is typically a last resort, after the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes. Even in those cases, “there is a good chance for a patient to be cured, but sometimes chemotherapy is recommended,” Bilchik said.
The doctor said another recent study indicated that taking an aspirin a day can also help to prevent colon cancer.
The American Cancer Society recommends a colonoscopy once every 10 years after the age of 50.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, if everyone who is 50 years old or older were screened regularly, as many as 60 percent of deaths from colon cancer could be avoided.