It's a medical procedure most people don't want to talk about.
But a colonoscopy, a procedure that involves the use of a long, flexible tube with a light and camera lens at the end to examine the lining of the colon, can save lives.
Dr. Ron Sorenson, one of four gastroenterologists at Brainerd Medical Center who work out of St. Joseph's Medical Center's endoscopy unit, said the most difficult aspect of undergoing a colonoscopy for many patients is simply walking through the doors at the hospital. The procedure is usually well tolerated by patients and rarely causes much pain, other than a brief feeling of bloating or cramping. Patients aren't awake during the 15-20-minute procedure.
"The hard part is getting here," said Sorenson.
March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month, a time to remind people of the importance of colon cancer prevention. According to the American Cancer Society, excluding skin cancers, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in men and women in the United States. It is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths and is expected to cause about 56,730 deaths (28,320 men and 28,410 women) this year alone.
The death rate from colorectal cancer has declined for the past 15 years, due in part to improvements in treatments, early detection and increased education about colon cancer prevention. More people are undergoing colon cancer screenings, like colonoscopies.
In fact, Crow Wing County is one of four counties in the state that has seen the greatest decline in colon and rectal cancer deaths through 2000, falling below the U.S. rate, according to a death rate/trend comparison study of the state cancer profile. The other three counties include Anoka, Blue Earth and Stearns.
The sooner the cancer is found, the better the chances are for a person to survive the disease. The American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy reported that the five-year survival rate for early stage cancers is more than 90 percent, while the five-year rate for those diagnosed with widespread cancer is less than 10 percent. Many times the polyps found within the colon exhibit a slow growth rate, allowing doctors to remove them before they spread as cancer throughout the colon or to other organs if caught early.
"That's what we're trying to get across to people," said Sorenson. "We have this window of opportunity to do some good."
While colonoscopies have been performed for years at St. Joseph's Medical Center, the hospital opened its new endoscopy unit nearly three years ago because it outgrew its former space. Last year the unit's four gastroenterologists -- Drs. Ron Sorenson, Paul Milloy, John Berg and Bill Sachs -- performed about 4,437 endoscopic procedures there. More than half were colonoscopies, said Sorenson.
Sorenson said patients should have their first colon cancer screening at 50. However, those with a first-degree relative, like a parent, sibling or child, who has had colon cancer have an increased risk of developing the disease and should be screened 10 years before the age that the family member who had colon cancer was diagnosed.
Larry Humann, director of information services at St. Joseph's Medical Center, is open about his 20-year struggle with ulcerative colitis and his recent diagnosis of Stage 3 colon cancer. Ulcerative colitis is an inflammatory bowel disease that causes inflammation and ulcers in the lining of the small intestine and colon.
Those who suffer from chronic inflammatory bowel disease have a greater risk of developing colon cancer, which is why Humann, who is 55, has undergone colonoscopies on an annual basis for the past five years.
Despite the frequent medical check-ups and procedures, Humann was hospitalized last October for intestinal blockage and was then diagnosed with colon cancer. A four-inch tumor had developed in his colon, spreading to four of his lymph nodes. He had his entire colon removed and started chemotherapy treatments at BMC in December of 2003, a treatment regimen he will likely need to continue until June. He also may have to undergo radiation treatments but it is uncertain as of yet.
"I think being involved in the medical community and dealing with the disease for so many years, I was on top of the potential things that could happen," said Humann. "You still have a natural tendency to ignore things and put things off and think that it's just something else that will go away with time, and that's a mistake. That's what I did. I put things off until I had blockage that required serious treatment. Procrastination is not good."
Humann said his doctors have given him a 60-70 percent chance of survival with the cancer treatments he's now undergoing, compared to a 30 percent chance of survival if he had not undergone chemotherapy.
He said he actually feels better now that he doesn't have a colon anymore and no longer struggles with ulcerative colitis, a disease he's had since he was in his mid-20s.
"I'm not embarrassed about it," he said. "In my years I could write a book about how I coped with this disease."
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