BY THE NUMBERS
Third: Colorectal cancer is the third-most-common cancer in men and women.
- 93,090 new cases of colon cancer in 2015
- 39,610 new cases of rectal cancer in 2015
Third: Colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in men and women, separately.
5 percent: the lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer
1 million: More than 1 million people have survived colorectal cancer
Source: American Cancer Society
On Feb. 19, Cathy Stowe gathered up her courage and faced one of her fears — undergoing her first routine colonoscopy screening.
The 60-year-old woman’s results, however, were not routine. Doctors found a lesion during her test.
“My first thought, like everyone’s, is that it was cancer,” Stowe said.
She returned for more tests the next week and learned her thought was correct. Stowe had colorectal cancer, even though she showed no symptoms.
“This was found when she was asymptomatic, and that’s the best way to find a colon cancer, because it means that it is small,” said Dr. Pepper Brown, a surgeon with Northeast Georgia Physicians Group, Surgical.
Stowe and her physician quickly began discussing treatment options. Because of the size and location of the tumor, surgically removing it was the best course of action. Stowe entered Brown’s office on a Friday and was scheduled for surgery the following Tuesday.
“They said, ‘When do you want to do it?’ and I said, ‘As soon as possible,’” the Toccoa resident said. “I went straight to the hospital for preop after that appointment.”
Brown, who removed Stowe’s tumor, explained surgery is generally the ideal choice for colon or colorectal cancer. Fortunately for Stowe, her cancer was at stage 1. Plus, her tumor was on the colon near the large intestine, allowing the reattachment of her organs to be simpler.
“Typically, in Gainesville in particular, most all colon cancers are resected laparoscopically, (making) for easy recovery and easier, earlier discharge,” Brown said. “In her particular case, she came in and had the surgery done through three small incisions about the size of a No. 2 pencil, and another incision about an inch-and-a-half long. And she went home in two days.”
Stowe now will be able to live normally despite the removal of her colon and lymph nodes.
But some are not as fortunate as Stowe. Most colon cancers are not detected without routine screenings. Some symptoms can be attributed to other common problems.
“Symptoms may be bleeding (and a) majority of time it is hemorrhoids,” Brown said. “But sometimes it can be something else. I’ve seen it frequently where people think it’s hemorrhoids and it turned out to be cancer.”
For anyone experiencing problems related to the colon, cancerous symptoms or a positive diagnosis, Stowe and Brown have some serious advice — talk to your doctor.
“Even though everyone told me not to, I went and read about (colon cancer) on the Internet,” Stowe said. “I read all about it and you know how it convinces you the worst is going to happen.
“Eventually, people kept telling me to stop, and I just put my faith in the Lord and stopped reading.”
Stowe underwent surgery March 9. And 14 days later, she returned to most of her normal activities, such as watching her grandsons play baseball and working as an office assistant at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Toccoa.
Although she was nervous about getting screened, she emphasizes the importance of not waiting.
“It really wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be,” Stowe said. “The worst part is having to drink the stuff they give you, but I wish I had done it sooner.”
Brown noted patients should have a colonoscopy by the time they turn 50. If these procedures are followed, then precancerous polyps and other unusual characteristics can be identified.
“Colon cancer is a very frequent cancer,” Brown said. “The majority of colon cancer is (derived) from a polyp. If those are left alone long enough, they will get larger and have the greatest chance of turning into cancer.”
Because of its lack of symptoms, colon cancer can spread rather quickly. That reason alone is why the American Cancer Society is spreading the word about the 80 percent by 2018 campaign during March, which is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month.
“In 2010, the most recent year for which numbers are available, only 59 percent of people ages 50 or older reported being up to date with colon cancer screening,” the ACS reported.
The campaign’s goal is to increase the percentage to 80 by 2018. But the stigma surrounding the colonoscopy procedure will have to be changed first.
“The actual screening colonoscopy is really a nonevent, you don’t really remember what transpired,” Brown said.
The doctor explained the patient is heavily sedated during the procedure.
“Many have no idea we have even finished the examination,” Brown said. “The worst part of the whole thing is the cleanse.”
The procedure doesn’t even require missing a whole day of work, but some prefer to relax afterward because of the anesthesia, Brown said. Even surgery patients can return to work in one to two weeks.
Brown and Stowe agreed the benefits of a screening procedure are immense, especially since growth and spread over time make the cancer more dangerous.
“It’s hard to tell how quickly these things spread,” Brown said. “Typically they’ve been there for a long time before symptoms show. We are trying to avoid operating on people where there has been some spread because spread to lymph nodes requires chemotherapy, and colorectal spread can require radiation before or after surgery.”