Hed: Reading the signs Deck: Colonoscopies, early detection make a difference in colon cancer survival rates

BY MICHAELA GIBSON MORRIS

Daily Journal

Colon health is a subject some folks would rather just flush. However, both Sarah Walker of Tupelo and Enothy Wilson of Houston are glad they didn’t.

Walker, 70, had put off having a screening colonoscopy for years, even though her daughter, nurse practitioner Carah Edgeworth, is a vocal community advocate for the screenings.

“I thought, I’m fine,” Walker said. ” I just kept putting it off.”

When she had a colonoscopy done earlier this year, Walker’s doctor found and took out three precancerous polyps.

Wilson, 51, could have explained away the blood she spotted after going to the bathroom as hemorrhoids, but she had it checked out.

When she went through a colonoscopy, doctors discovered localized colon cancer. Surgeons were able to completely remove the cancer and she didn’t require chemotherapy or radiation treatment.

“The worst thing is not having the test done,” Wilson said.

Colon cancer

Colon cancer is serious business. In 2008, nearly 150,000 Americans will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer, and nearly 50,000 will die from the disease, according to the American Cancer Society.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, because colon cancer is one of the few tumors that gives physicians something they can see before it becomes malignant. That’s why colonoscopies are recommended for everyone starting at age 50.

“Most colon cancer starts as a polyp,” said Tupelo gastroenterologist Dr. John Averette.

They’re often mushroom-shaped stalks that hang down into the colon, although they come in other shapes, too. During a colonoscopy, doctors can just snip polyps out, with no further treatment necessary.

“It is a remarkable opportunity,” Averette said. “We can prevent most cases of colon cancer.”

People and insurance companies are getting the message that colonoscopies are an effective tool against colon cancer.

“In the past few years, the incidence of new cases of colon cancer have decreased,” Averette said. “There’s only one reason for that.”

Better late than never

At 70, Sarah Walker knew she was past due for a colonoscopy. Her daughter, Carah Edgeworth, worked to bring the community spotlight to the importance of colonoscopies.

“I was very anxious about the prep,” Walker said. “But it wasn’t anything like I thought.”

To get clear pictures of the colon, the colon has to be cleaned out. The preps now require less of the liquid medicine.

“The prep has gotten a lot better,” Averette said. “One is even in pill form, you just choose your own clear liquid.”

Walker’s colonoscopy went smoothly, and she was surprised to learn doctors found three polyps.

“They were the kind that within a few years would have turned into cancer,” Walker said. “I was very thankful.”

Watchful eye

Although people over 50 are far more likely to have polyps and colon cancer, it can happen to people who are younger.

“We’ve had a 29-year-old diagnosed in the past few weeks,” Averette said.

That’s why it’s important for everyone to pay attention to changes in their bowel habits, such as bright red or dark blood in the stool, changes in the shape of the stool, and frequent gas pains and cramping.

Not every bout of bowel symptoms requires a colonoscopy, but persistent symptoms without clear causes should be discussed with a family doctor.

Catching colon cancer in the polyp stage is best. However, when colon cancer is caught at early stages, there’s a 90 percent 5-year survival rate, according to the American Cancer Society.

It would have been easy for Enothy Wilson to dismiss some blood in her stool in May 2007. She was 50 years old, busy raising two sons and helping her husband William, who is on dialysis. But since she was having stomach problems with her acid reflux, too, she made an important appointment with her internal medicine physician.

That led to a colonoscopy and the discovery she had colon cancer. After the tears, came the good news – the cancer was localized.

“I thank God every day,” Wilson said. “I would have explained it away as a hemorrhoid.”

Surgery to remove that section of her colon was successful, and Wilson is doing well.

“I thank God for good doctors and nurses,” she said.