Group Promotes Early Colon Cancer Screenings
By COSHANDRA DILLARD
Colon cancer is a commonly diagnosed cancer and claimed nearly 10,000 lives in Texas last year. In Smith County, 43 people died in 2008 from colon cancer, according to Texas Oncology reports. The medical group is pushing a campaign throughout the month of March to encourage people to be screened and pay attention to their bodies.
"We have to empower our community about the importance of this test," said Dr. Svetislava Vukelja, a Texas Oncology-Tyler oncologist. "It's a life-saving procedure. That's the bottom line."
Dr. Vukelja said colon cancer is the only cancer that may be preventable. She said like all cancers, diet and exercise is important, and screening at age 50 is critical in diagnosing and stopping the spread of the cancer. Symptoms include a change in bowel habits, cramping, frequent gas or indigestion and bleeding from the rectum or in stool.
Sometimes there are no symptoms in the early stages, she said, which makes it very important to get screenings at age 50.
"The lack of symptoms in early stages is striking," she said. "People should get screened even if they do not have symptoms. If you have symptoms it doesn't matter what age you are. Just because you are 25 doesn't mean you can't have colon cancer."
When caught early, the survival rate is about 90 percent, Dr. Vukelja said. However, if the cancer reaches stage 4, it is not curable.
New medications have proven effective for the treatment of colon cancer and patients at Texas Oncology-Tyler have participated in trials.
Of the last 30 drugs approved by the FDA, patients at the Tyler practice have participated in research for 24 of the medications.
The stigma associated with the screening is fading, in light of publicity, thanks in part to national news anchor Katie Couric, Dr. Vukelja said.
The screening process may be unpleasant, which includes drinking a pasty laxative, but patients are sedated during the actual procedure.
High-risk groups include: those with a family history of colon cancer, poor diet, inherited conditions such as Lynch Syndrome and other health problems such as diabetes and irritable bowel syndrome.
But sometimes, colon cancer can strike even if someone does not fall into those categories.
Tim Riffe, 43, of Canton, is one. He said he was healthy and had no family history of colon cancer. He was diagnosed last year in stage 3. He suffered from back pain and doctors initially thought he had a crushed disc. Once finding the cancer, he underwent surgery to remove a tumor the size of a baseball and then chemotherapy.
Like many people, Riffe said he was apprehensive about the test and thought it was a waste of time.
"It wasn't as bad as people think," he said.
A captain at the Duncanville Fire Department, Riffe was at a higher risk because firefighters are exposed to carcinogens, studies show.
Since his diagnoses, some of his family members have been encouraged to get screened for colon cancer.
Riffe's diagnosis looks promising, he said.
Along the way, it is the support of family and friends that helps the recovery from cancer.
"When a patient has cancer it's not just that one patient," Dr. Vukelja said. "It affects the whole family."