March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, a time set aside to encourage everyone to learn about their risk factors and access the screening they need.

The American Cancer Society now recommends that average-risk patients have their first colonoscopy at age 45 to help prevent and detect colon cancer.

At Regional One Health, we can help patients access routine screening, assess and manage risk factors, and prevent and treat disease. 

During Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, Regional One Health is raising awareness and ensuring access so every patient can get the screening and care they need to lead a healthy life.

Our primary care providers, gastroenterologists and oncologists all play a role in helping patients prevent, detect and treat colorectal cancer.

Primary care physicians like Madiha Haji, MD at Primary Care Specialists are often the first stop for patients with gastrointestinal symptoms.

“Patients may come in with abdominal pain or symptoms like gas, bloating, and constipation or diarrhea,” she said. “Usually it’s a minor issue that resolves with lifestyle changes or medication, but GI issues can be more serious, such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease or even colon cancer.”

When a patient complains of GI problems, Dr. Haji gets a detailed medical history and performs a thorough exam. If she suspects a serious illness, she orders lab tests and imaging.

She also helps patients with preventative screening. “Colon cancer is one of the most common cancers in men and women, and it is a silent cancer – most people don’t have symptoms until it has progressed,” she said. “Therefore, it’s important to counsel patients about screening. This is usually done during their annual physical, but sometimes earlier depending on their symptoms.”

Patients who need a colonoscopy or specialized GI care are referred to a gastroenterologist like Leonard Baidoo, MD, who sees patients at our main campus.

Primary care physicians are often the first stop for patients with GI concerns like stomach pain, diarrhea, gas and bloating. They can help identify the problem and provide treatment.

“Colonoscopies are the best way to identify polyps before they turn into cancer, and to allow us to remove them as early as possible,” Dr. Baidoo said. “If a polyp stays in your colon too long, it can become cancerous. If the cancerous polyp is very large or cancer has spread to other parts of the body, it can require difficult surgeries and chemotherapy.”

If cancer hasn’t spread outside the colon or rectum, five-year survival rates are 91 percent. That drops to 72 percent if it has spread to nearby organs or lymph nodes and 14 percent if it reaches more distant areas like the lungs or liver.

Dr. Baidoo said the American Cancer Society recommends people at average risk for colon cancer get their first colonoscopy at age 45 – a recent change from its previous guideline of age 50. If the initial test is normal, the patient should have a colonoscopy every 10 years through age 75, and then talk with their doctor about their continuing screening needs.

Patients with a higher risk for colon cancer due to a strong family history, a history of IBD, or a history of radiation to the abdomen or pelvis may need to start screening before age 45 and might require a colonoscopy every year or every other year.

Dr. Baidoo said a colonoscopy takes less than an hour and is not painful. Your doctor inserts a tube through the rectum into the colon, then uses a camera to look for polyps and other growths.

You may need to stop some medications, like blood thinners, a week or so ahead of the test. The day before, you can have clear liquids but no solid food, and you’ll be given a laxative.

On the day of your colonoscopy, you’ll need a support person to wait while you have your test, since you’ll be sedated and may not be able to drive afterwards.

Patients may need blood tests or other screening, including a colonoscopy, to identify colorectal health issues. Talk to your doctor about your risk for disease and your screening needs.

Dr. Baidoo talks to patients about the results immediately after the test. He advises them to take it easy for the rest of the day, but that they can resume eating and normal activities quickly.

Any suspicious polyps are sent to a lab for pathology. If a patient is found to have colon cancer, treatment depends on the size of the tumor and whether the disease has spread.

Regional One Health Cancer Care offers comprehensive treatment from a team of nationally recognized experts in surgical oncology, gastrointestinal surgery, medical oncology, radiation oncology, gastroenterology and pathology.

Our medical oncologists use treatments like chemotherapy and radiation to address cancer while helping patients manage side effects, and surgical oncologists offer minimally invasive techniques that have less risk and recovery time.

To make an appointment with a Regional One Health provider, call 901-545-6969.