Colorectal cancer: Why more people are surviving the disease

March 18, 2014 | by

For the past 20 years, the death rate for colorectal cancer has been dropping for both men and women. That decline can be traced to a number of factors, including advanced screening techniques, new drugs and improved surgical and medical treatments.

colon

Cancer of the colon ... Shown here: A highlighted colon.

As a result, the United States now has more than 1 million survivors of colorectal cancer. But even with all these advancements, the American Cancer Society estimates there will be more than 136,000 new cases of colorectal cancer in the United States this year and that approximately 50,000 patients will die from this disease.

Here, Stephen M. Sentovich, M.D., M.B.A., clinical professor of surgery at City of Hope, explains the risk factors for colorectal cancer and what advancements to expect in the near future.

Who is most at risk for colorectal cancer?

In the U.S., we are all at risk of colon and rectal cancer. Colon and rectal cancer is the third most-common cancer and second most-common cause of death from cancer.

Colon and rectal cancer can occur at any age, but the incidence increases as we age, particularly as we get over 50 years of age. For both men and women here in the U.S., the lifetime chance of getting colon and rectal cancer is about 5 percent. In some families, the risk is much higher due to genetic risk factors.

At what age should a person undergo screening for colorectal cancer?

Everyone should be screened starting at the age of 50. However, if you have a family history, family members that have had colon cancer or especially family members that have had colon cancer at an early age, screening should start earlier.

Does genetics play a role in colorectal cancer?

Genetics does play a role in colorectal cancer. In some families, the risk of developing colon and rectal cancer is high and screening for cancer should start at a much earlier age. Currently it is thought that about 20 to 25 percent of colon and rectal cancer cases have a genetic basis.

How can someone reduce his or her risk of being diagnosed with colorectal cancer?

Dr. Stephen Sentovich of City of Hope

Stephen Sentovich recommends that people diagnosed with colon or rectal cancer fully understand their treatment plan. That means asking lots of questions.

Eating a heart-healthy diet, reducing alcohol consumption, not smoking and increasing your exercise level are all things that you can do to reduce the risk of colon cancer.

When someone is told they've been diagnosed with colorectal cancer, what are some of the first questions they should ask their doctor?

Patients with newly diagnosed colorectal cancer should ask questions so that they fully understand their treatment plan. What exactly is going to be done? How long is it going to take? What are the benefits of this treatment? What are the short-term and long-term side effects? What is the prognosis for survival?

The death rate for colorectal cancer has been dropping for the past 20 years. Why?

The death rate for colorectal cancer has been dropping due to a number of reasons. One is that polyps are being found by screening and removed before they can develop into cancers. Screening is also allowing more colorectal cancers to be found earlier when the disease is easier to cure.

In addition, treatment for colorectal cancer has improved over the last several years. There are better surgical and medical treatments that use new drugs and combinations of drugs. Surgical treatments have also been refined and improved. As a result, there are now more than 1 million survivors of colorectal cancer in the United States.

What advancements do you predict in the field of colorectal cancer?

Over the next 10 years, further advancements in the treatment of colon and rectal cancer will continue. Minimally invasive surgical treatments such as laparoscopic and robotic surgery will continue to be refined and improved. Improvements in medical therapy and radiation therapy may actually reduce the number of patients who actually need surgery.

Not only will there be new drugs and combinations of drugs, but drug therapy will be individualized to each patient based on the genetic make-up of the particular tumor. Finally, in addition to improving cure rates, advances in treatment will also reduce discomfort and side effects associated with colorectal cancer treatment.

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Learn more about colorectal research and treatment at City of Hope.

Learn more about the importance of the colonoscopies in this video with Stephen Sentovich, M.D.

At her first colonoscopy, Jill learned she had Stage 3 colon cancer. Watch her video story.

Read about screening options.

Ask the Experts: Colon Health

On March 19 City of Hope physician experts will discuss “Colon Health” at the free community program Ask the Experts. They will share information on colon health, including the importance of screenings, understanding colon cancer risk factors, cancer treatments and much more.

Donald David, M.D., chief of the Division of Gastroenterology, will focus on screening, prevention, risk factors, diet and colon cancer symptoms; Stephen Sentovich, M.D., M.B.A., clinical professor in the Department of Surgery, will cover surgical techniques and advantages of minimally invasive surgery for colon cancer; and Marwan Fakih, M.D., co-director of the Gastrointestinal Cancer Program, will talk about treatment decisions and surveillance after a diagnosis of colon cancer.

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To learn more about colon cancer, please reserve your seat by signing up for the March 19 Ask the Experts “Colon Health” to be held on our Duarte campus from 6 to 7:30 p.m. You can also watch the March 19 program live on our YouTube channel.