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Get Screened for Colorectal Cancer

March 3, 2014

About 50,000 people – enough for a sold-out crowd at an Atlanta Braves game at Turner Field – die from colorectal cancer each year. Many of those deaths could be prevented.

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) is urging all Georgia adults ages 50 and older to get screened for the disease.

“If you’re 50 or over, the time to get tested is now,” said DPH Commissioner Brenda Fitzgerald, M.D. “Screening for colorectal cancer may keep you, or a loved one, from dying from a cancer that is preventable.”

Screening is vital for detecting colorectal cancer. The disease is caused by abnormal growths, called polyps, inside the colon and rectum, which can turn into cancer. These growths cause virtually no symptoms in their early stages when they are also the most treatable.

Screening can detect those growths so doctors can treat them before they become cancerous. Health officials recommend that all adults get regular colorectal screenings once they turn 50. But according to DPH data, one in three Georgians in this age group has not been screened.

“Screening saves lives, but too many of us are just not getting it done,” said Jean O’Connor, DrPH, DPH’s director of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.

Getting a colonoscopy is hardly anyone’s idea of a good time, and many people may end up avoiding the procedure. But colonoscopies aren’t the only way to screen for colorectal cancer. Doctors can use less invasive methods, such as highly sensitive tests called FIT or FOBT to check a patient’s stool sample for blood, a sign of precancerous polyps or colon cancer. Colonoscopies are still recommended for patients every 10 years, but studies show that patients who are able to choose the test they have done are more likely to get screened. O’Connor said patients should talk to their doctors about their choices.

“The best test for colorectal cancer is the one you’re willing to have done,” she said.

People can also prevent colorectal cancer by adopting healthy habits in their daily lives. Daily physical activity, a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products can reduce the risk of colorectal cancer and a host of other chronic diseases. So can not smoking and avoiding drinking too much alcohol. The key is to keep risk factors in check and get screened.

Throughout March, PHWEEK will feature stories about Georgians who have faced colorectal cancer and the steps they took to detect and treat the disease. To read these stories and to learn more about the disease, visit the colorectal cancer page on DPH’s website.