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Screening key to early detection

Cancer: Hospital offers free blood-screening kits in honor of National Colorectal Cancer Month in Ma

Posted: March 4, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: March 4, 2011 1:55 a.m.

Screening kits.

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If he had it to do all over again, James Gilbert would have made one different choice in his life. He would have had a colonoscopy sooner.

The Stevenson Ranch resident and management consultant had been healthy most of his life. In 2005, at the age of 60, having skipped physicals for the last three decades, Gilbert decided to finally have a colonoscopy as recommended by his physician.

His diagnosis was stage four rectal cancer.

“We were all surprised to find a very large tumor,” Gilbert said. “I had no symptoms. I am the poster child for early detection.”

Screening
Despite being one of the most preventable diseases, colon cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, remains the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, with 50,000 reported in 2010.

In honor of National Colorectal Cancer Month in March, Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital will offer free screening kits to the community from March 21-25 at various locations at its Valencia campus and satellite offices.

The screenings look for blood in the stool, which can often be a precursor to colorectal cancer. Such testing is the key to early detection, said Dr. Rajinder Kaushal of Santa Clarita Gastroenterology Medical Group in Newhall and a staff physician at Newhall Memorial.

“Colon cancer today is a preventable disease. Colon cancer almost never starts as cancer. It starts as a benign polyp or growth and over a number of years, grows bigger in size. These bleed or eventually turn into cancer,” he said.

If blood is found in the stool sample, it is recommended that the patient talk to their physician about the results and possibly schedule a colonoscopy.

Colonoscopies
As a general rule, Kaushal, as well as the American Cancer Society, recommends colonoscopies to everyone, starting at 50 years old and every decade thereafter. If there is a history of cancer in the family, the recommendations are different.

“It depends on the age of the index case. If someone has a parent or sibling that had cancer at age 45, we would recommend cancer screening 10 years before the index, which in this case, would be age 35,” he said.

The American Cancer Society estimates 145,000 American are diagnosed each year with colon and rectal cancer, with men and women equally at risk.

Unhealthy lifestyle choices can contribute to colorectal cancer, which is why Kaushal recommends taking vitamins, moderating alcohol and red meat intake, eliminating smoking completely and exercising on a regular basis.

“A high fiber diet is also good,” he said.

Oftentimes, symptoms from colorectal cancer can include rectal bleeding, which many people dismiss as a different problem.

“People will say, ‘Oh, it’s my hemorrhoids that are bleeding.’ Then we do a colonoscopy and find polyps or cancer,” he said.

A colonoscopy is an endoscopic examination of the colon and the distal part of the small bowel, performed with a flexible tube equipped with a fiber-optic camera that is passed through the anus.

Often, patients will delay their colonoscopy appointments, fearing the procedure is uncomfortable at best, painful at worst. According to Kaushal, that is generally not the case.

“Colonoscopies are done under conscious sedation. People are very sleepy and the discomfort is very minor,” he said. “Not everyone’s the same. Special circumstances such as abdominal surgeries or trauma, can create adhesions that make it more uncomfortable. For the regular, run-of-the-mill person, a colonoscopy is painless.”

The big C
After receiving his rectal cancer diagnosis, Gilbert was understandably frightened.

“When Dr. Kaushal told me, I thought rectal cancer was terminal. He was really good about getting me to see that it is survivable. I went from expecting death to expecting to get well in about 10 minutes,” he said.

Gilbert underwent surgery followed by weeks of radiation and months of chemotherapy.

“The surgeon told my wife that in another two months, the tumor would have been inoperable,” he said.

Gilbert remained cancer-free until January 2010, when he was diagnosed with lung cancer, which required the removal of his right lung. Currently, he has no evidence of cancer.

The recovery process has been a struggle for Gilbert. He went from 165 to 117 pounds and is slowly putting back the muscle mass he’s lost. His wife, Bernadette, a breast cancer survivor, became his caregiver.

“She’s seen me suffer, which isn’t really fun,” Gilbert said.

Still, he strives to look on the bright side. “I know that a positive attitude is a determining factory in recovery,”  he said.

Though he often speaks in public, Gilbert finds it challenging to describe the difference between the colonoscopy he should have had at age 50, and the cancer treatment he has endured as a result of that choice.

“I couldn’t describe that magnitude of suffering compared to a day of cleaning your system out and being scoped — something that takes one or two hours, then you’re done,” he said. “If I’d had that simple little procedure, it is immeasurable how much less I would have had to go through. It was a stupid thing not to do.”

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