September 16, 2010 | by Kevin M. Norris
Colon cancer: the importance of early detection

My dear friend, Dr. Jose Mendoza, is an incredible inspiration with an invincible spirit and contagious zest for life. He was recently diagnosed with colon cancer and he eloquently manages to maintain a courageous fight with an unflinching positive attitude. Jose is tackling his diagnosis with knowledge and action.

He wrote this piece so the next person may be able to prevent contracting cancer and other health issues.

We all have little pains and medical questions between visits to the doctor. Then we get there and forget everything. As soon as we leave the office, we remember the questions we meant to ask, but it’s too late.

Make a list! After I was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 31, I learned to take better advantage of the five or 10 minutes I have with my doctors. I designed a list, like a laundry or shopping list, which I always prepare a couple days before a visit. You may want to keep a running list that you can update whenever you think of something.

Lists can be designed for different illnesses, like HIV, high blood pressure, renal disease, diabetes or cancer.

It is important to track new symptoms, if you experience any since your last visit, and to note any new family medical history you may discover, any new medicines or natural remedies you take, any lifestyle changes, etc. This information will help your doctor to help you better. If he or she knows you well, together you can prevent many illnesses.

Remember to disclose your sexual orientation, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable. It has repercussions for your health-care management.

Today I want to focus on colorectal cancer because of the upcoming D.C. Goes Blue activities, Sept. 26 to Oct. 3.

Colon cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer and the second leading cause of cancer death. It has no symptoms in most cases and can be diagnosed at any age, especially in at-risk populations.

Anal cancer is almost 60 times more common in HIV-positive individuals, compared with the general population, according to a 2008 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. The author’s project rates to increase as HIV-infected persons live longer.

A colonoscopy is indicated for everyone 50 or older. But if you have a family history, or you are African American, Latino, Alaskan native or Native American, you should get your first colonoscopy sooner because you are at higher risk and could be discovered in a more advanced stage before 50.

As part of your laundry list, ask your doctor about ordering a fecal immunochemical test or fecal occult blood test. These are painless exams that could discover blood in your stool. You can’t necessarily see the blood, but if the lab results are positive, the next level of care is indicated: a virtual colonoscopy or regular colonoscopy.

If blood is not found, you are good to go. These tests can be done annually and the only downside is that they do not identify precancerous polyps. You need a colonoscopy to discover those.

The colonoscopy itself is quick and painless. Patients are completely sedated and the procedure normally takes only 15 to 20 minutes. Preparation the day before is now available in a number of options, including liquid and pill forms. I won’t lie; the prep is the worst part.

Colon cancer is beatable in nine out of 10 cases when caught early. Colon cancer is one of the very few cancers that are preventable!

We need to think about our health more comprehensively. Eat a balanced diet, get exercise, don’t smoke, drink moderately or not at all, and get your preventative screening tests. Make your laundry list before your next appointment and tell your doctor you want your colon checked. For additional information, visit the Colon Cancer Alliance website at ccalliance.org.

Dr. Jose Mendoza is former director of Malaria Clinical Trials for the U.S. Navy.  Mendoza is volunteering as Latino medical consultant for the Colon Cancer Alliance and can be reached at jmendoza@ccalliance.org.

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