Colon cancer declines over last five years

Early detection of colon cancer can lead to a greater than 90 percent chance of a cure.

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WALLA WALLA - J.D. Smith, a grant writer at the Walla Walla Symphony who was recently diagnosed with colon cancer, urges early testing.

Smith is one of approximately 150,000 people in the United States who has colorectal cancer. Doctors discovered Smith's cancer when he had his first test in November at age 69.

"Scan as early as possible. I was 69 years old when they did that," Smith said. "Right now I am trying to get rid of it."

March is colon cancer awareness month, which stresses the importance of early testing and detection of colon cancer. There are significant benefits from early detection. Dr. Harald Schoeppner, a gastroenterologist at Providence St. Mary's Cancer Center in Walla Walla, said early detection of colon cancer results in a greater than 90 percent chance of curing the cancer.

"(Getting a) colonoscopy can prevent the risk of dying from colon cancer by 85 percent," Schoeppner said. "Early detection of the cancers results in a good chance of cure, that is, when the cancer is restricted to the colon and has not spread outside," Schoeppner said.

Schoepnner said that due to the increase in early screening of colon cancer in the U.S., there has been a decline in the number of patients with colon cancer over the last five years.

According to Schoeppner, the best screening option for colon cancer is a colonoscopy.

"There are many options available for screening. The best in 2011 is a colonoscopy, because it detects both precancerous lesions, or so-called polyps, and cancers itself. Screening means to perform a test before a patient develops symptoms. Early stage cancers do not cause any symptoms," Schoeppner said.

As a general rule, people should start getting screened for colon cancer at age 50. If patients have a family history of colon cancer, they should get tested 10 years before their youngest family member got colon cancer. People should get tested every 10 years, unless polyps are present, in which case it is every five years.

"Any patient with symptoms: rectal bleeding, alterations in bowel habits, weight loss, change in stool caliber, should be checked earlier," Schoeppner said.

"The colonoscopy is neither painful nor embarrassing; patients will receive enough sedation so they do not feel discomfort and the doctors and nurses are mainly occupied watching the patient's video on a flat screen," said Schoeppner.

Smith agrees that the procedure is simple. His favorite piece of advice is "it's just a little less stressful than eating at a restaurant. I found that to be true. There is nothing to it. You just come in and they do it," Smith said.

Smith had surgery in November, and he is currently on his fourth chemo treatment. He will be doing chemotherapy every two weeks for six months.

Smith says he has had a great experience with St. Mary throughout his cancer journey.

"These folks have been very nice to me. The people I would want to congratulate the most are the soldiers on the floor: the aides and the RN's," Smith said. "When you wake up from surgery, there is somebody right there. Those people watch you day and night and take care of you. They're the ones who helped me a lot through that surgery."

Schoeppner and the other gastroenterologists at Providence St. Mary's in Walla Walla have received awards for their work with colon cancer.

"Providence St. Mary Medical Center was recently awarded the American Society of Gastrointestinal Endoscopy) Center of Excellence Award for Endoscopy, only given to units that perform to the highest standards of care," Schoeppner said.

Joe Volpert can be reached at joevolpert@wwub.com.

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