Specialists recommend regular colonoscopies

June 6, 2017

If you’re over 50, have you been screened for colorectal cancer?  If not, the month of March would be a great time to talk about screening with your doctor.

Colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer in men and women in theUnited States. In 2012, an estimated 141,210 people will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer and 49,380 will die of the disease.

But it’s also a very curable cancer when it’s caught early. A new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in February that tracked patients as long as 20 years shows that colonoscopy screening slashed the colorectal cancer death rate by more than 50 percent.

During National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, organizations across the country are holding events and sharing information about the disease, and are encouraging all men and women age 50 to 75 to have a screening test – usually a colonoscopy.

A colonoscopy involves examination of the colon and rectum using a camera-tipped instrument. This method can diagnose cancers early; the test also can prevent cancer from developing, by detecting and removing pre-cancerous polyps.

Though many people dread colonoscopies, with appropriate sedation they are relatively painless. And for people who aren’t at high risk, a colonoscopy every 10 years is sufficient, says Dr. Charles Fuchs, director of Dana-Farber’s Gastrointestinal Cancer Treatment Center. “Beyond our continuing efforts to define better treatments for patients diagnosed with colorectal cancer, we continue to focus on the importance of primary prevention through diet and exercise and early detection through regular screening colonoscopies.”

Here are just two leads researchers at the center are looking at:

  • It appears that patients who have high levels of vitamin D in their body are less likely to have recurrences of colorectal cancer. Dr. Kimmie Ng, a medical oncologist in the gastrointestinal cancer center, is leading what she says is the first randomized clinical trial to determine if boosting vitamin D levels with high doses of supplements can delay progression and lengthen survival in patients with metastatic colorectal cancer. “There are several scientific and observational studies showing that vitamin D may have anti-tumor effects,” Ng says.
  • Physical exercise has also been shown to have benefits for colorectal cancer patients. There’s also evidence that metformin, a widely used diabetes drug, may have an anticancer effect. A new clinical trial led by gastrointestinal oncologist Dr. Jeffrey Meyerhardt, is testing a combination of metformin and exercise in patients at risk for recurrence of colorectal cancer following treatment with surgery, radiation or chemotherapy.