Colon cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer-related death in the United States, but it is also preventable, treatable and beatable, said Dr. Luis Coppelli, a general surgeon who has been practicing in Payson for 30 years.
He discussed colon cancer at a free program at Payson Care Center Monday.
"We have 20 feet of small intestine and 8 feet of large intestine," Coppelli said. Colon cancer is found in the large intestine. According to the American Cancer Society, almost all cases can be cured with early diagnosis through the use of a full colonoscopy.
Coppelli said there is no single cause for colon cancer, but nearly all types begin as benign polyps. Left undetected, these can develop into cancer, slowly, over the course of several years.
There is some indication that a diet high in fat, low in fiber and eating substantial amounts of red meat may increase the risk of developing colon cancer. However, other studies show that a change in diet to low fat, high fiber and minimal red meat doesn't change the risk level.
"Most of the time, it comes out of the blue and there are no symptoms," Coppelli said.
However, there are indicators to watch for, he said. These include diarrhea, constipation or other change in bowel habits -- especially going from one to the other successively when no change in diet has been made. Also watch for blood in the stool, narrow or thin stools, unexplained weight loss, abdominal pain and tenderness in the lower abdomen and/or intestinal obstruction.
Another indicator is anemia that cannot be attributed to any injury or other cause.
Screening through physical exam and a colonoscopy can detect colon cancer before symptoms develop.
The physical exam includes inspecting the rectum, pressing on the abdomen to check for masses or bumps and a fecal occult blood test. The FOBT is not especially reliable, Coppelli said. It can show negative in those who have colon cancer and positive for those that don't. So the full colonoscopy is the recommended diagnostic test.
Everyone 50 or older who has not yet had this test, should ask their health care provider to schedule one, he said.
Four doctors in town perform colonoscopies.
"We do about 150 a month and find four to five cancers," Coppelli said.
A colonoscopy is an out-patient procedure and requires sedation. It also involves preparation that cleans out the large intestine, done over the course of one to three days prior to the test.
It is anywhere from a 10- to 20-minute procedure, Coppelli said. In his career, he has probably done about 2,000 of the procedures.
A colonoscopy is both a diagnostic test and the first line of treatment.
The equipment used can excise polyps for biopsy.