Bottom line, now more than ever, there is no excuse not to get screened for colon cancer, doctors say.
Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States—expected to cause more than 50,000 deaths this year.
Yet colon cancer typically takes about 10 years for it to go from precancer to cancer stage—ample time for a screening to catch the cancer.
"If everybody in the country over the age of 50 got screened for colon cancer, we would cut the death rate by 60 percent," says Dr. Blase Polite, an assistant professor of medicine at the Center for Gastrointestinal Oncology at the University of Chicago.
Put another way, if everybody over 50 got screened, more than 30,000 lives would be saved each year, he says.
"This is a very preventable cancer and screening works," he says. "No debate about it."
Yet many avoid a colon cancer screening, something doctors say is essential to surviving this type of cancer because it's much more difficult to treat by the time symptoms appear. Often, doctors hear it's because patients think of a colonoscopy as a less than pleasant experience.
Polite, however, says as technology advances, more screening tests available continue to increase.
"Everything from specialized stool sample analysis where we look for DNA changes that may signal a cancer to what are called virtual colonoscopies where a CT scanner with special software is used instead of a scope to make a 3D reconstruction of the colon to look for polyps or cancer," he says.
Colonoscopies are getting more sophisticated as well, where doctors are testing using special sprays and lights to try and find precancers and cancers with higher accuracy than ever before. All of these technologies are available in the Northwest Indiana and Chicago areas at various medical practices and hospitals, he says.
"We keep improving these technologies so that hopefully one day we can do away with the preparation to clean out the colon that many patients don't like," Polite says.
In what Polite calls an era of genomic medicine, for the first time ever, doctors and researchers have sequenced the entire genome of colon cancers.
"We now know many of the gene mutations that are driving this cancer," he says. "This has already allowed us to develop many so called targeted drugs to go after these mutations and at places like the University of Chicago, we continue to test the next generation of these drugs so hopefully we will be able to cure more people with colon cancer even after it has spread to other parts of the body."
Dr. Rajeev Tummuru, a gastroenterologist at Porter Regional Hospital, says surgical treatments for colon cancer have advanced as well.
Surgeons at Porter Regional are current with the latest surgical techniques, including laparoscopic colon surgery—a surgery that involves the use of several small incisions through which a specialized camera and instruments are inserted.
"This can result in a faster recovery time without a large incision," Tummuru says.
Also available in this region now is an endoscopic ultrasound—a technique that can help surgeons and oncologists with planning treatment.
"Until now, this has not been available in the region, and patients needing this procedure have had to go to Chicago or Indianapolis," he says.
Dr. Mohamad Kassar, an oncologist at Munster Community Hospital, says one of the most exciting advancements he's seen is in colon cancer therapy.
"We used to use chemotherapy drugs, where we had one or two chemo drugs available," he says. "But now we have multiple agents of chemo drugs and biological targeted therapy."
Doctors can now devise treatment plans based on a biological profile of the cancer.
"We can actually obtain colon cancer profiles, and depending on the tumor characteristics, we can design an achievement plan," he says.
Doctors define a target in a higher concentration of the cancer cells, and then provide therapy that specifically targets that area.
"This way, patients do not have the classic side effects of chemotherapy, and enjoy a better quality of life during treatment," Kassar says.
Even in the most advanced types of colon cancer, where the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, doctors are seeing longer expectancy rates in patients.
"The average survival has improved dramatically in the last 10 years," Kassar says. "It used to be 6 to 8 months. Now it's 2 to 3 years."