Be aware and be well: Promoting colon health

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Colon cancer. Ten years ago, no one talked about it. Today, awareness among Ontarians has increased dramatically due in part to an aggressive awareness campaign by Cancer Care Ontario. More than 7,000 people walked through a forty foot long model of a human colon over three days in a Brampton, Ontario shopping mall. The Giant Colon event was hosted by Cancer Care Ontario and health-care partners including The Carlo Fidani Peel Regional Cancer Centre at The Credit Valley Hospital. The event represents an effort to educate the public about the disease, its prevalence and prevention.

Ontario has one of the highest rates of colorectal cancer in the world and thousands die from it each year. It is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer for men and women in Canada. According to the Canadian Cancer Society, in 2009, an estimated 8,100 Ontarians were diagnosed with colorectal cancer and 3,300 will die from the disease. There is a 90 per cent chance colorectal cancer can be cured if it’s detected early through screening.

Colon cancer is cancer of the large intestine (colon), which is the lower part of the digestive system. Rectal cancer is cancer of the last six inches of the colon. Together, they are referred to as colorectal cancer. The awareness campaign’s advertisements and educational literature state the simple truth: “If you were see-through, it would be easier to spot colon cancer.” Since you’re not see-through, the campaign’s goal is to educate physicians and the public to get screened and to recognize and address symptoms earlier while a cure is still within grasp.

Antonia Defina was 55 years old when she started having symptoms of colon cancer: bloating, diarrhea over many months, eventual bleeding and weight loss. The symptoms persisted for more than a year. Any one of them should have raised a red flag. When she returned from what was supposed to be a recuperative vacation feeling worse than she did before she left, her physician suggested the ongoing diarrhea and weight loss were likely the result of a bug she must have picked up while away.

 In Antonia’s case, her symptoms were not only missed – they were dismissed for more than a year. Fortunately, her colon cancer was eventually recognized and with surgery, she has been well for ten years since diagnosis.

 In Ontario today, Antonia’s experience is likely to be a very different one. Physicians, caregivers and the public are more aware of the symptoms of colorectal cancer. They are equipped with the information they require for early diagnosis.

 When The Credit Valley Hospital partnered with Cancer Care Ontario and other health care providers to bring the Giant Colon event to Bramalea City Centre, Antonia was there. She is now a Canadian Cancer Society volunteer from the regional cancer program at The Credit Valley Hospital. “The Giant Colon is the best thing I’ve ever seen for cancer awareness,” Antonia says. “Lives can be saved here! If just one person is saved – even if they get screened and only remove the polyps that can potentially become cancer, this whole event is worth it.”

During the time she spent talking to visitors, Antonia was able to share her own experience as living proof that detection and treatment of colon cancer can save your life. She enthusiastically encourages others who may be at risk to get screened. Alongside Antonia were representatives from public health, Cancer Care Ontario and the Community Care Access Centre to provide additional information about the disease, screening and how to get tested.

Dr. Sheldon Fine, vice president, Cancer Care Ontario and medical director of oncology at The Credit Valley Hospital says studies demonstrate the introduction of focused screening and prevention reduces the mortality rate by 15-30%. Screening detects the very early stages of disease. Polyps, a precursor to cancer are removed during colonoscopy, which means cancer does not develop. If cancer does not develop, there is no need for additional surgery, chemotherapy or radiation. For participants, there is a reduction in mortality and morbidity related to treatment. Clearly, it is the goal of any cancer system to maintain a healthier state of life for people.”

There are no physical signs or symptoms during the early stages of the disease. As the disease progresses, late stage symptoms occur such as a change in bowel movements; blood in stool; diarrhea, constipation or a feeling that your bowel doesn’t empty completely; narrower stools than normal; stomach discomfort; unexplained weight loss and fatigue. Your colorectal cancer risk can be reduced by eating a healthy diet; leading an active lifestyle; not smoking and drinking alcoholic beverages in moderation.

If you are over 50 years old, have a family history of the disease, or exhibit symptoms, you should ask about colorectal screening. The government of Ontario, in collaboration with Cancer Care Ontario created ColonCancerCheck – a province-wide colorectal cancer screening program encourages all adults aged 50 and older to get screened for colorectal cancer.

Visit www.cvh.on.ca to hear Dr. Fine’s podcast on colon cancer screening.