March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. According to the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in both men and women.
Although there have been several advancements in colorectal cancer over the past few decades, many misconceptions still exist that prevent individuals from undergoing appropriate screenings and treatment.
This month is a great opportunity to raise awareness while also clarifying misunderstandings. Heather A. Hannon, MSN, RN, ANP-BC, ONC, ACGN, a Bon Secours nurse and gastrointestinal (GI) nurse navigator (pictured above, left), and Susan Keen, MSN, RN, OCN, a Bon Secours nurse and oncology colorectal nurse navigator (pictured above, right), take us through some myths and truths about colorectal cancer.
Myth: I’m too young to worry about colorectal cancer.
Reality: While most individuals diagnosed with colorectal cancer are over the age of 55, there has been a significant increase in the number of young adults diagnosed with the disease in the past decade. As a result, the American Cancer Society, among other national cancer organizations, now recommend starting colonoscopy screening at age 45.
Myth: I only need a colonoscopy every 10 years.
Reality: Everyone’s risk for colorectal cancer is unique. For example, individuals with a strong family history of colorectal cancer, a personal history of colon polyps or a personal history of diseases of the colon and rectum, such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, may benefit from more frequent and earlier screenings. It is important to talk to your doctor about your risk factors and design a colorectal screening plan that is the right fit for your needs.
Myth: Colorectal cancer isn’t inherited.
Reality: While most cases of colorectal cancer are sporadic, about 5 to 10 percent of colorectal cancer cases are associated with inherited genetic changes, or mutations. Red flags for hereditary cancer include a family history of multiple cancers or cancers occurring under age 50. Additionally, the same genetic changes that can increase risk for colorectal cancer can lead to higher risks for other types of cancer. Genetic counseling testing can help identify whether you have inherited a genetic change associated with elevated risk and whether you would benefit from specific strategies for lowering risk.
Myth: Not much has changed when it comes to treating colorectal cancer.
Reality: Treatment for colorectal cancer has evolved substantially in recent years. As researchers learn more about the genetic drivers of colorectal cancer, genetic findings are now being used to inform treatment decisions for certain types of colorectal cancer. For example, did you know colorectal cancers that harbor genetic changes in mismatch repair genes appear to respond well to immunotherapy?
Researchers also understand that it is not just the type of therapy that is important but coordinating the specific sequence of therapies is equally valuable. For example, total neoadjuvant therapy (TNT) for rectal cancer has become an important option for certain rectal cancer cases and focuses on delivering chemotherapy and radiation therapy upfront, prior to surgery, has been shown to improve outcomes.
Myth: This is all a lot of information and it’s too complicated to understand.
Reality: Finding the right information and resources can feel overwhelming. However, at Bon Secours, our specially trained GI cancer nurse navigators are experts in their disease site and serve as key members of our multidisciplinary cancer team. Our nurse navigators can provide you and your family with key education and support for identifying cancer risks, coordinating cancer screenings, developing risk reduction strategies and connecting you with our top team of cancer physicians quickly and seamlessly.
Additionally, our GI cancer nurse navigators can put you in touch with the many supportive, sometimes free of charge, resources offered through our Cullather Quality of Life Center at Bon Secours St. Mary’s Hospital. This includes services such as music therapy, yoga, meditation and cancer support groups. If you have a family history of cancer or have been diagnosed with a genetic alteration associated with cancer, our nurse navigators can assist your physician team with referring you to our unique cancer genetic counseling program. In this program you will have the opportunity to meet with experts in hereditary cancer management.
“Colorectal cancers are largely preventable with appropriate screening,” Michael White, MD, a surgical oncologist with Bon Secours – Richmond (pictured above, center), says. “The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force now recommends that you start colon cancer screening at age 45 for average risk patients, which is a change from previous recommendations to start at age 50. This change is due to increasing numbers of patients getting diagnosed with colon and rectal cancers at younger ages. Please see your doctor and stay up to date with your colon screening.”