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Early screening for colon cancer saves lives

Risk increases along with age


by: OUTLOOK FILE PHOTO - Dr. Harald Schoeppner, director of gastroenterology at Legacy Mount Hood Medical Center, said that on average, 1 in 20 people could develop colon cancer. Routine screenings, he added, can reduce the rate to 1 in 100.

When a medical practitioner spots an uptick in one particular disease or diagnosis, it’s a sure bet he or she will conduct some research.

Dr. Harald Schoeppner, director of gastroenterology at Legacy Mount Hood Medical Center, grew concerned a few years ago when three patients in one week were referred to his practice from the hospital’s emergency room for suspected colon cancer.

“When I started working at Mount Hood in 2012, I began to notice an increase in advanced stage colon cancer,” Schoeppner said. “Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S. But when I asked those who came in to Mount Hood if they had any screening tests, the majority said they hadn’t.”

Schoeppner’s nearly two-year study of the number of cases of stage III and stage IV colon cancer revealed a sobering statistic: Of the 30 patients referred to his department between Jan. 1, 2012, and Oct. 15, 2013, 20 had gone to the emergency room at Mount Hood because they were experiencing rectal bleeding or symptoms of a blockage — potential signs of colon cancer.

The data also showed that of all the patients diagnosed with the disease at Legacy Mount Hood Medical Center, 30 percent were found to have stage IV cancer (not curable). That was nearly double the number of cases diagnosed statewide in 2006 (16 percent).

Schoeppner’s study was general in nature and not based on demographic information (i.e. a patient’s mailing address). The research also does not indicate an “epidemic,” he said.

But it does stress the importance of screening, Schoeppner adds.

The average age of those diagnosed with advanced colon cancer during the time of Schoeppner’s study was between 65-70 years old. Since it generally takes eight to 10 years for a colon polyp to become cancerous, early detection not only prevents the disease from spreading to other parts of the body, but also maintains quality of life.

“The older we are, the higher the risk,” Schoeppner said. “We actually like to find the polyps because we can attack those in the early stages. There’s a 90 percent cure rate when we have the time to intervene early.”

Schoepper’s localized data may seem alarming, but in reality, the news regarding colon cancer is encouraging. Nationally, the number of new cases and deaths resulting from the disease are declining, which illustrates that the public is getting the message that timely and appropriate screenings are beneficial.

Schoeppner recognizes that the customary test for colon cancer, a colonoscopy, is widely viewed as expensive and, well, not very pleasant. But for those with no history of colon polyps and an average risk for the disease, the procedure needs to be repeated only every 10 years. There are other screening options, Schoeppner said, but most must be done annually and will clearly call for a colonoscopy should something be found.

The important thing, however, is to “do something,” Schoeppner said.

“A good screening by a good center can give you an 80-90 percent protection rate,” he said. “The average is 1 in 20 people could get colon cancer, but a good screening can reduce that to 1 in 100.”

Fast Facts

— Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S.

— For those with average risk, the American Cancer Society recommends screenings for men and women over age 50 either annually or every 10 years, depending on your physician’s recommended procedure.

— Risk factors include a family history and age (strong); red meat consumption, uterine or ovarian cancer at a young age (moderate); a highly caloric and/or fatty diet, smoking, obesity and those who are tall (modest).

— Protective factors against colon cancer: a diet high in fruits and vegetables; exercise; and recommended intake of calcium, Vitamin D and fiber.

— See your doctor if you experience an unexplained weight loss, change in bowel habits or rectal bleeding.

For more information, visit legacyhealth.org/cancer.

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