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Women's health: Screening plays key role in reducing colon cancer deaths

Studies consistently show that women are more likely than men to comply with screening recommendations. In addition, women are also more likely to report worrisome symptoms for evaluation.

Despite what appears to be greater vigilance, however, women and men remain almost equally affected by colorectal cancer.

In 2009, the most recent year numbers are available from the federal government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 136,717 people in the United States were diagnosed with colorectal cancer, including 70,223 men and 66,494 women. In the United States, 51,848 people died from colorectal cancer, including 26,806 men and 25,042 women.

Preventing death from colon cancer takes two forms: screening of individuals with no symptoms and prompt evaluation of worrisome signs and symptoms.

According to the CDC, “Of cancers that affect both men and women, colorectal cancer is the second leading cancer killer in the United States, but it doesn’t have to be. If everybody aged 50 or older had regular screening tests,screening tests, as many as 60 percent of deaths from colorectal cancer could be prevented. About nine out of every 10 people whose colorectal cancer is found early and treated are still alive five years later.”

Despite this, nationwide, more than one-third of individuals eligible for screening do not get screened for colorectal cancer.

What are the barriers to screening? Studies show the barriers to testing include cost, logistics, embarrassment and fear of discomfort related to colon cancer screening tests, and belief that one is not at risk. Studies also show that compliance improves when patients discuss with their physician both the individual risk of cancer and concerns regarding testing.

Who should get screened? Anyone over age 50 should be screened for colon cancer. Screening may be recommended earlier than age 50 in individuals with a family history of colon cancer or polyps or a personal history of digestive problems.

How do I get screened? There are many different screening tests available, including tests of the stool, X-ray tests, and a procedure called a colonoscopy that allows any precancerous growths to be removed at the same time. Speak to your primary care doctor to determine whether you should be screened and which test is right for you.

If you have the belief that you are not at risk, you should know that, in fact, many individuals diagnosed with colon cancer have healthy habits and no family history. This is the reason that screening is recommended for all individuals at the appropriate age.

Evaluation of Symptoms

Apart from screening, anyone with digestive symptoms may be considered for evaluation for colon cancer. Symptoms that may suggest the need for evaluation include changes in bowel habits, an increase in gas and bloating, bleeding from the rectum or anus, and abdominal pain.

These symptoms often are underreported in women for a variety of reasons. Rectal bleeding may be difficult to distinguish from vaginal bleeding and women often routinely experience alterations in their digestive habits that are often attributed to menses or menopause.

Many times these symptoms are attributable to a benign cause, but occasionally they require evaluation. When in doubt, ask your doctor.

Dr. Jaya Agrawal is a gastroenterologist at Hampshire Gastroenterology Associates in Florence.

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