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Colon Cancer & Women

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Chesapeake, VA, gastroenterologist Patricia Raymond has a message for women: "Don't assume you can't get colon cancer because you're a woman."

In fact, you're just as likely to develop the disease as any man, disputing the still-held myth that colon cancer is a "man's disease." And you're more likely to develop it as you age, with more than 90 percent of cases diagnosed in those 50 and older.

This year, an estimated 112,340 cases of colon cancer and 41,420 cases of rectal cancer will be diagnosed in the United States, and 52,180 people will die from the disease. That makes colorectal cancer the second leading cause of cancer-related death and third most common cancer type in both men and women, accounting for about 10 percent of all cancer deaths. And yet, in most cases it can be prevented with a simple, 15- to 30-minute test.

That test is a colonoscopy, in which a gastroenterologist inserts a thin, flexible scope with a camera and a light source in the tip through your anus to exam your colon. The American Cancer Society recommends it every 10 years beginning at age 50, earlier and more often if you have a family history of colon cancer, precancerous colon polyps called adenomas or other risk factors. The test, which costs between $500 and $1,000, occurs under sedation in an outpatient setting and is the primary reason for the significant drop in the rate of colon cancer in the United States over the past 20 years.

Yet getting women to schedule their colonoscopies can be more challenging than convincing them to shave their heads. "Women who are so tolerant of so many screening procedures have a meltdown when it comes to colonoscopy," says Dr. Raymond. "They won't do it, and they don't want to hear that they can get colon cancer."

The procedure itself is not nearly as difficult as many women believe. Sure, you have to drink a large amount of special liquid or take over a dozen pills the day before to "clean out" your colon so your doctor can see what's going on in there, but that's typically the worst part. You turn up at the outpatient endoscopy center, receive a sedative through an IV, and before you know it, it's all over.

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September 22, 2009 - 1:45pm
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