Combating colon cancer

Dr. Derek Holcombe

Derek Holcombe, M.D., the only board-certified gastroenterologist in Alexander City, has been caring for patients at Russell Medical for 25 years.

Over time, he has seen many advances in this field, including more effective treatments; simpler ways for patients to prepare for procedures; and increased patient awareness about gastrointestinal diseases, including one of the most preventable.   

“The most important thing I screen for and treat is colon cancer, and people are so much more aware of it now,” Dr. Holcombe said.

Men and women are equally affected by colon cancer, which is the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States. The American Cancer Society recommends that people at average risk of colorectal cancer start regular screenings at age 45. This can be done either with a sensitive test that looks for signs of cancer in a person’s stool (a stool-based test) or with an exam that looks at the colon and rectum (colonoscopy).

During a colonoscopy, Dr. Holcombe views the interior of the colon, looking for cancer or pre-cancerous polyps. During the procedure, he removes any growths and small amounts of tissue for biopsy, if needed.

For screening, people are considered to be at average risk if they do not have:

• A personal history of colorectal cancer or certain types of polyps

• A family history of colorectal cancer

• A personal history of inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease)

• A confirmed or suspected hereditary colorectal cancer syndrome, such as familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) or Lynch syndrome (hereditary non-polyposis colon cancer)

• A personal history of getting radiation to the abdomen or pelvic area to treat a prior cancer

For adults with one of the above conditions, colon screenings may be recommended at an earlier age.

When colonoscopy results are normal, a follow-up is recommended every 10 years. If there’s a family history of colon cancer, a follow-up is recommended every five years. When polyps are found, a follow-up is recommended based on the number, size and type of polyps.

“The goal is to find and remove pre-cancerous polyps before they develop into colon cancer,” said Holcombe. “If colon cancer is found early, nine out of 10 patients are alive after five years. Those are significant statistics for combating cancer.”

With odds like these, it’s amazing how many people are not taking advantage of this life-saving procedure, he said. Only 52 percent of Americans ages 50 and older are screened regularly.

“Millions of people are not getting screenings, but they definitely need to. Patients can call us directly and say, ‘I’m 50, and I want to be screened.’ It is also important to emphasize that the procedure does not hurt. I can’t emphasize that enough,” said Holcombe. “With the type of sedation we use, you will be ‘out’ for 10 minutes. It’s really a breeze, but vitally important to catch problems early to prevent cancer. Early detection is the key.”

While colorectal cancer screening is the most important way to prevent colorectal cancer, Dr. Holcombe said, there are lifestyle changes that can reduce your risk for polyps and colorectal cancer.

There is convincing evidence that the following strategies can decrease colorectal cancer risk:

• Don’t smoke.

•If you do smoke, stop.

• Increase your physical activity.

• Maintain a healthy body weight.

• Avoid overall body fat, especially fat around your waist.

• Reduce amounts of red meat and processed meats eaten.

• Use alcohol in moderation.

Talk to a physician about a colonoscopy, or call Dr. Holcombe at Central Alabama Gastroenterology at 256-329-2829 to schedule one today.

~ Susan Foy is the marketing director for Russell Medical.