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News Room: Press Releases

Early colorectal cancer detection saves lives

March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month so ask your doctor about your risk factors and make an appointment to be screened. For help making an appointment, call
1-888-Virtua-3 (1-888-847-8823).

Colorectal cancer, the silent killer

A 15 minute colonoscopy could save your life

Colorectal cancer, the silent killer

The colon and rectum don't have a glamorous job, but their healthy function is certainly critical to one's well being. The colon is responsible for forming and storing the body's waste. And the rectum is responsible for expelling it.

While no one knows for sure what causes the colon and rectum to develop cancer, it is known that colorectal cancer often starts as polyps - small growths that form on the colon lining. And there are certain risk factors that make a person more susceptible. These include being over the age of 50, a high-fat diet, a history of polyps, smoking, a family history of colon cancer and a diagnosis of ulcerative colitis.

The symptoms
Often referred to as a silent killer, the symptoms of colorectal cancer are similar to other medical conditions. Signs include diarrhea, constipation or a sensation that the bowel does not empty completely. Some people experience blood in the stool or stool that is narrower than usual. Frequent gas pains, bloating, fullness and cramps can also be a sign as well as unexplainable weight loss, fatigue, and vomiting.

The issue that complicates the detection of colorectal cancer is that symptoms are often not noticeable until the cancer is at a later stage. The American Cancer Society recommends that both men and women have a colonoscopy every 10 years starting at the age of 50. Those with a family history or at increased risk may need to be screened earlier and may need more frequent screenings. To help prevent colon cancer, it's important to eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grain foods and to limit the amount of red meats you eat, especially those high in fat. Even small amounts of regular exercise are important as well.

Great strides in treatment
Cancer specialists at the Fox Chase Virtua Health Cancer Program (FCVH) provide the latest treatments for colorectal care, offering services that range from advanced radiation oncology and state-of-the-art chemotherapy to patient participation in national and regional clinical trials.

Surgeons treat colon cancer by removing the tumor along with a section of the surrounding colon. The healthy sections of colon are rejoined and, if the cancer has spread beyond the colon, chemotherapy follows.

And now, groundbreaking treatments are available to remove cancer from the rectum. Radiation and chemotherapy are used prior to surgery to help shrink the tumor. This enables surgeons to preserve more of the rectum and decrease the need for a colostomy, a procedure in which a small pouch is attached to the outside of the body to collect stool if the rectum can't. "There was a time when almost 90% of patients needed a colostomy. Now only 10 to 15% of patients need a permanent one," says Stephen Pilipshen, MD, Virtua colorectal surgeon. "We are also performing a procedure called a colonic J pouch to help alleviate a feeling that some people who have rectal surgery experience —an inability to control bowel movements."

A 15 minute colonoscopy could save your life
What's more uncomfortable: having a colonoscopy or having colon cancer? Colon cancer is preventable if precancerous growths (polyps) are detected early through routine screening and removed. But more than half of Americans who should be screened do not get tested according to the American Cancer Society.

"For individuals at normal risk for colorectal cancer, screening tests should begin at age 50 and the preferred approach is a screening colonoscopy every 7 to 10 years," explains board-certified gastroenterologist, Vincent McLaughlin, MD. "African-Americans and anyone with a family or personal history of bowel disease or cancer should talk with their doctor about starting screening earlier," notes Dr. McLaughlin. "Patients with a direct family member who was diagnosed with colon cancer before the age of 50 should be screened earlier, so it's important to speak with your physician regarding any family history."

So what exactly happens during a colonoscopy?
A colonoscopy is a safe, effective means of visually examining the full lining of the colon and rectum. Most colonoscopies are done with minimal inconvenience. Patients are given medication through a vein to make them feel relaxed and sleepy during the procedure. It usually takes about 15 to 30 minutes.

A colonoscope is a slender, flexible, hollow, lighted tube about the thickness of a finger. It is inserted through the rectum up into the colon. The colonoscope is connected to a video camera and monitor.

A colonoscopy is considered the gold standard for diagnosing colorectal cancer since in most cases, it allows the doctor to see the lining of the entire colon. If a polyp or anything abnormal is found, the doctor may remove it during this test. The polyp can then be sent to a lab for a biopsy to see if it is cancerous. Colonoscopy usually does not cause pain; many people find the anticipation worse than the exam itself.

Who performs a colonoscopy?
A physician, usually a gastroenterologist or a surgeon, will perform the test. It may be done in a hospital outpatient department, an ambulatory surgery center or a doctor's office. The patient's privacy is a top concern. What about the prep?

Patients receive instructions on how to cleanse their colon at home before the exam, so that there will not be any stool to block the view. The day before the exam, you'll follow a special diet and take a very strong laxative in the hours before the procedure. You may also need an enema to fully cleanse the colon. Be aware, you'll need to stay close to the bathroom! Talk to your doctor

As one of New Jersey’s largest health systems, Virtua helps people be well, get well and stay well through a comprehensive range of health care services. Services are delivered through three health and wellness centers, three fitness centers, three acute care hospitals, primary and specialty physician practices with more than 240 physicians, urgent care centers, nine ambulatory surgery centers, home health services, two long-term care and rehabilitation centers, 12 paramedic units and a wide range of outpatient services. A leader in maternal and child health services, Virtua delivers more than 8,000 babies a year. Virtua also provides employment and wellness services to 1,700 businesses and corporations. An innovator in clinical and information technology such as electronic medical records, Virtua is recognized for its ground-breaking partnerships with GE Healthcare, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and the Fox Chase Cancer Center. Virtua employs more than 8,700 people and has been honored as the #1 Best Place to Work in the Delaware Valley every year since 2007. It is the recipient of the Consumer Choice Award from the National Research Corporation. For more information, visit or