03.18.14

For Your March Checklist: Take Steps To Prevent Colon Cancer

by Patrick and Marcelle Leahy

It’s uncomfortable, though not as much as most of us fear.  The preparation the day before is unpleasant.  I don’t have time for this, we think to ourselves.  I don’t want to think about this.  These are all excuses some people might give when told it’s time to schedule a colon cancer screening, such as a colonoscopy.  But by putting it off, you could be risking your life.  And if you think a colonoscopy might be uncomfortable, unpleasant or time-consuming, consider the implications of colon cancer, and think again.

March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in the United States.  This year, nearly 137,000 people will be diagnosed with it.  Worse, more than 50,000 people will die from it.  In Vermont this year, 290 new cases of colorectal cancer are expected, and 100 deaths.

Marcelle is a Registered Nurse, and a cancer survivor, of melanoma.  Both of us are close to a former staffer of Patrick’s who had a close call with colorectal cancer; he’s another cancer survivor.  We are sure that most Vermonters, like us, have friends, acquaintances and even family members who have faced this disease. 

The good news is that we have come so far in being able to do something about it.  Screening can both prevent colorectal cancer and find it early, when it is more treatable, and the five-year survival rate is 90 percent.  Experts recommend screening for both men and women over 50 of average risk, and several kinds of screenings are available.  A colonoscopy, considered the gold standard, allows medical professionals to examine the entire colon and remove any pre-cancerous growths, called polyps, before they ever become cancerous.  But more important than the type of screening is making the appointment and keeping it.  The Affordable Care Act requires insurance companies to cover colorectal cancer screening in their health insurance plans.

For some, screening should start earlier than age 50.  People at higher risk for colon cancer may have other health risks or a family history of colon cancer, polyps or inflammatory bowel disease.  If you are African American, are obese, have Type II diabetes, smoke or have more than two drinks a day if you are a man or more than one drink a day if you are a woman, you may need to be screened earlier.  Have the conversation with your doctor.   

No matter your age, you can get started on colon cancer prevention today.  Maintain a healthy weight, exercise regularly, and eat a nutritious diet low in red meats and processed meats like bacon or sausage, and full of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.  Don’t smoke, and drink in moderation. 

Colorectal cancer is preventable, beatable and treatable.  Talk with your health care professional about colon cancer screenings and preventive measures you can take to reduce your risk.  Encourage your loved ones to get screened.  We invite you to visit www.preventcancer.org for more information about colorectal cancer prevention and early detection. 

We’ll all be so glad for you, too, to beat the statistics.


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[Patrick Leahy is Vermont’s senior U.S. Senator; Marcelle Leahy is a Registered Nurse, a cancer survivor, and an active member of the Congressional Families Cancer Prevention Program of the Prevent Cancer Foundation.]

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