Governor Susana Martinez declared March “Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month” in New Mexico, calling the disease one of the most “preventable, treatable and beatable” forms of cancer if caught early. University of New Mexico Cancer Center experts join the governor and state health officials in urging New Mexicans to get screened for colorectal cancer, the second leading cause of cancer death in the state.
Around 800 New Mexicans receive a diagnosis of colorectal cancer each year, and another 300 die of the disease, according to data from the New Mexico Tumor Registry. The disease affects both women and men. Though decreasing slightly among non-Hispanic whites, colorectal cancer cases in New Mexico are on the rise among Hispanics and Native Americans. Of even greater concern, deaths from the disease are increasing among Native American men.
Yet, experts emphasize, there is plenty of good news. “This is one of the only cancers that we can actually prevent through screening,” says Ashwani Rajput, MD, Chief of Surgical Oncology at the UNM Cancer Center and an expert in gastrointestinal cancers. “Colorectal cancer almost always starts with a small growth called a polyp. Screening procedures like colonoscopies allow us to find and remove polyps, stopping colorectal cancer before it starts.”
Colonoscopy, which examines the inside of the intestine with a camera-tipped tube, is the most common colorectal cancer screening method in the US. Other types of screening tests that can detect polyps include double contrast barium enema, flexible sigmoidoscopy and CT colonography (virtual colonoscopy). Not every polyp will develop into cancer, but virtually all colorectal cancers start out as polyps.
A new study released last month in the New England Journal of Medicine provides the best evidence yet that colonoscopies save lives. The study found a 53% reduction in colorectal cancer deaths among patients who had colonoscopies and whose doctors had removed precancerous polyps, as compared to death rates in the general population. Approximately 2,600 patients were tracked, some for as many as 23 years. A previous phase of the study had shown that colonoscopies significantly reduce the incidence of the disease; the new phase strongly underscores the test’s role in actually preventing colorectal cancer deaths.
When colorectal cancer is found and treated early (while it is small and before it has spread), the five-year survival rate is about 90%, according to the American Cancer Society, which recommends screening for all men and women over age 50. African Americans, hit the hardest by this cancer of any racial group in the US, are urged to begin screening at age 45. Those with family histories of colon or rectal cancer should also discuss earlier screening with their doctors. “Everyone over age 50 should be screened for the disease,” says Dr. Rajput. Colonoscopy is generally recommended every 10 years, though people at higher risk may benefit from more frequent screening.
Despite the power of colorectal cancer screening to save lives, many New Mexicans are not getting tested. It is estimated that only 60% of New Mexicans over 50 are current with their colorectal cancer screening. Inadequate screening is one reason why only one-third of colorectal cases in New Mexico are diagnosed at an early stage, according to data from the New Mexico Tumor Registry. “Some people are intimidated by the screening procedure,” notes Dr. Rajput. “In fact, it is easy and painless—and it could save your life. Other people think they aren’t at risk for the disease. There are lots of myths surrounding colorectal cancer. The UNM Cancer Center urges everyone to educate themselves about the disease, especially by talking with their doctor.”
Learn more at the New Mexico Department of Health colorectal cancer webpage.