Meet our doctors: Surgeon Stephen Sentovich on colorectal cancer

January 14, 2014 | by

Colon and rectal cancer is treatable and beatable – and early detection is of paramount importance. Yet despite research that shows colon and rectal cancer screening saves lives, recent data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that more than 20 million Americans age 50 to 75 have never been tested  for colon and rectal cancer, and that one in three adults are not up-to-date with their screenings.

Dr. Stephen Sentovich of City of Hope

Colorectal screening saves lives. Stephen Sentovich, a colorectal surgeon at City of Hope, is very clear on that point.

An advocate for screening colonoscopy and early detection, Stephen Sentovich, M.D., M.B.A., a board-certified colon and rectal cancer surgical expert at City of Hope, discusses facts about this form of cancer and how screening absolutely does save lives. 

Who is most at risk for colon and rectal cancer?

In the United States, colon and rectal cancer is the third most-common cancer and second most-common cause of death from cancer. Each year, nearly 150,000 new cases are diagnosed and more than 50,000 patients die of colon and rectal cancer. Colon and rectal cancer can occur at any age, but the incidence increases as we age, particularly as we surpass 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.

What can one do to decrease the risk of colon and rectal cancer?

We all can decrease our risk of developing colon and rectal cancer by eating an appropriate diet, maintaining a normal weight, exercising regularly, drinking alcohol in moderation, avoiding smoking and undergoing screening testing for colon and rectal cancer.

How important is screening for colon and rectal cancer?

Undergoing screening for colon and rectal cancer is very important for two reasons. Colon cancer develops from polyps that can be removed during a colonoscopy. Theoretically, if everyone undergoes a screening colonoscopy at the appropriate time and all polyps are removed prior to becoming cancer, then colon and rectal cancer could be completely eliminated.

Another important reason for screening is that colon polyps and cancer do not necessarily cause any symptoms. A polyp or cancer could be present for months or years without causing bleeding, pain or any other symptom. It is very important to undergo screening to identify and remove these polyps and early cancers.

Why are some people predisposed to getting colon and rectal cancer?

Colon and rectal cancer occurs more commonly in some families, and we have identified genetic mutations that significantly increase the risk in other families. Familial adenomatosis polyposis and hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer, or Lynch Syndrome, are two of the common genetic causes of colon and rectal cancer. Colon and rectal cancer is also more common in individuals with inflammatory bowel disease such as ulcerative colitis or Crohns’ disease.

Can diet play a role in helping to prevent colon and rectal cancer?

Diet is thought to play a major role in the development of colon and rectal cancer. Currently, it is thought that a diet with increased fiber, fruits, vegetables and low in animal fat and red meat has a lower risk of colon and rectal cancer. In addition, a diet higher in calcium is thought to decrease the risk of colon and rectal cancer. Finally, alcohol should be consumed in moderation because studies have shown that two or more alcoholic drinks per day increase the risk of colon and rectal cancer.

What should a patient newly diagnosed with colon and rectal cancer know about treatment? Any new advances?

Newly diagnosed patients should know that mortality from colon and rectal cancer is decreasing because of better surgical and medical treatments. New drugs and combinations of drugs are more effective. Surgical treatments have been refined and improved. Today, most  patients are candidates for minimally invasive surgical techniques that have less pain and a faster recovery.

Why did you choose this specialty? What inspires you to do the work you do?

Colon and rectal surgeons concentrate all of their time and expertise on the colon and rectum, and consequently, can do everything for a patient with a colon or rectal problem. I can evaluate a patient in the office, do a colonoscopy in the endoscopy suite, or perform a minor or major operation in the operating room. Because I can do all of these things for my patients, I can provide them with a more comprehensive approach and better understanding of their colon and rectal problems.

Do you have a question for Dr. Sentovich? If so, post it below.

To learn more about colon and rectal screening and treatment options at City of Hope, visit cityofhope.org/colorectal-cancer.

Also, watch a video of Jill, a colon cancer survivor and former patient at City of Hope, as she shares her story.