Hello doctor, I am Maggie, Susans mother. I have been passing blood in my stool. Do you think it is hemorrhoids? Dave and Susan think it could be cancer.
Maggie is sixty seven. She has been bleeding rectally for the last two years. Over-the-counter medications for local application have not helped. Has she got colon or rectal (colorectal) cancer?
Colorectal cancer affects men and women equally. It is the fourth most common cancer site. It is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in men and women combined ( A Snapshot of Cancer in Alberta-1996).
Do we know what causes colorectal cancer? No. If we did then prevention and cure would be easy. But we do know the risk factors.
Like breast cancer, age is a significant factor. Before the age of forty, the incidence is pretty low. But by the age of fifty, the risk begins to increase dramatically.
What about lifestyle and nutrition?
Studies have shown that death from colorectal cancer can decrease with increased intake of fiber, fruits, and vegetables. Decrease in fat intake also helps.
Increased physical activity, aspirin and avoiding cigarette smoking may be beneficial.
Heredity and genetics is now recognized as a risk factor for this disease. Studies have shown that if there is a family history of colorectal cancer in a parent or a sibling , then a persons lifetime risk of colorectal cancer jumps from 1.8 fold to 8.0 fold.
Previous history of colorectal cancer or polyps, inflammatory bowel disease and exposure to radiation are other significant risk factors.
With this information in the back of my mind, I take a full history from Maggie and do a thorough physical examination.
The physical examination is normal. A digital rectal examination reveals no suspicious lumps. A proctosigmoidoscopy ( a hollow tube with a light at one end to examine the rectum) shows internal hemorrhoids but no lumps to suggest a new growth of tissue.
Although Maggie has internal hemorrhoids, there are about fifty percent chances that the blood could be coming from higher up in the colon. This may or may not be due to cancer. But she requires further investigation like colonoscopy.
Examination of the entire colon by colonoscopy (a thin, flexible tube made of fibers that transmit light) is the most important test for looking, taking biopsies and when possible, removing growths. Maggie agrees to have the test done as soon as possible.
Maggie has to take laxatives to clean the colon completely of waste products the day before the procedure. The test is done at the hospital as day surgery and under sedation.
A polyp (new growth of tissue) is discovered and removed during colonoscopy. This is sent to the lab for testing to see if it is benign or malignant. In the meantime, she makes an appointment to see me in the office for the results.
Susan accompanies Maggie to make sure her Mom understands the results and its implications. Susan also wants to know how the findings will affect her (Susans) health in the future.
Maggie, I have good news for you. The polyp is benign in nature but its a type which can come back and turn into cancer if not picked up early and removed.
Dr. B, thank you for the good news. Now I have the same old question for you. How can my mom and I stay one step ahead of the game? Susan asks with a sense of relief.
Eat less fat. Eat more fiber-containing foods. Have a digital rectal examination and annual stool test for hidden blood and colonoscopy every 3 to 5 years. Report to your doctor earlier if there is any change in bowel habit.
Maggie and Susan are happy that this is all over. As they leave the examination room, I overheard Maggie say to Susan, I hope now you will listen to your mother and start eating bran flakes cereal in the morning!
(This series of articles explore the health problems of Dave and his family. They are composite characters of a typical family with health problems)
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