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Colon cancer getting more attention

Medical experts want to shed more light on cancers that grow where the sun doesn't shine. "Colon cancer is a curable disease," said Dr. Dan Nikcevich repeating, "Colon cancer is a curable disease." "It's really important to know that," said the o...

Medical experts want to shed more light on cancers that grow where the sun doesn't shine.

"Colon cancer is a curable disease," said Dr. Dan Nikcevich repeating, "Colon cancer is a curable disease."

"It's really important to know that," said the oncologist. "That's why we do screening."

Nikcevich was one of four speakers Tuesday night at St. Mary's/Duluth Clinic Health System's Colorectal Cancer program. And though the disease occurs in a part of the body not popular in conversation, the panel had an optimistic message: "Early detection improves outcome."

"Colon cancer is a very common cancer," said Dr. Theresa Smith, a gastroenterologist. "... Colon cancer is starting to get more awareness in the press."

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Smith said cancer can occur anywhere in the colon -- the large intestine -- and it is the second leading cause of cancer death in this country. About 2,600 are diagnosed each year with the disease in Minnesota, and about 950 die.

Despite the figures, Smith said that only about 40 percent of Minnesotans who should be screened for colon cancer are actually tested.

"We're trying to raise awareness," she said. "But we have a ways to go."

Smith said age is an important factor in colon cancer risk. The disease is seldom found in people under 50. But at 50, the risk rises dramatically. She said the disease is believed to start with polyps, small grape-like or mushroom-shaped growths on the inside wall of the colon or rectum.

Ideally, through screening physicians would find the polyps early and safely remove them.

Genetics counselor Diane Bierke-Nelson explained the role of family history in determining the risk of colon cancer.

"Mutation in specific genes (is) responsible for the hereditary risk of cancer," she said. Those individuals are also at greater risks for a second type of cancer. People at high risk due to family history are put on a more intense screening and monitoring regime.

"Colon cancer is common; it's going to happen," said Dr. John Deutsch, a gastroenterologist and oncologist. "It's not that uncommon a disease. It's probably a preventable disease, and death from colon cancer is preventable."

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He said the industry is getting about two-thirds of the colon cancers cured while its still relatively easy to treat.

"You can cure these things," he said. "Successful screening can lead to successful intervention; screening can find the disease while it's still treatable and curable."

Deutsch said at the age of 50, people should think about getting screened. He explained options, including the fecal blood test, X-rays, sigmoidoscopy and colonoscopy, with the last being "the gold standard."

But to the dismay of some in the audience, he ruled out the virtual colonoscopy as still being in the future.

"There are many options available, and all of these decrease the risk of cancer," Deutsch said. "Do something, 'cause something is better than nothing."

According to Dr. Jonathan Sande, another SMDC oncologist, colon cancer is the third most prevalent cancer for men behind lung and prostate cancers and for women behind lung and breast cancers.

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