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Colonoscopies can save lives

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - Editors' note: In this column, Charlotte Hofer interviews Roberta Cahill of the American Cancer Society on colon cancer. Cahill is Yankton Sioux and lives in Pierre. Her work focuses on cancer awareness and education to diverse populations.

Charlotte Hofer: Roberta, how serious of a problem is cancer in general for Native people?

Roberta Cahill: The statistics are pretty sobering. According to the American Cancer Society, American Indians and Alaska Natives continue to have the poorest survival rate from all cancers combined - more than any other racial group. Cancer is the second leading cause of death among American Indians and Alaska Natives over the age of 45.

Hofer: What are some of the barriers to health care that Native Americans in particular face?

Cahill: Well, poverty is one of the most important factors because it influences the prevalence of other underlying risk factors for cancer -such as tobacco use, alcohol use and obesity. And access to early detection and high-quality treatment is a continuing problem for Native people. The American Cancer Society can help. Just call them at (800) ACS-2345.

Hofer: What exactly is colon cancer?

Cahill: Colon cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer and the second leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. It almost always develops from a polyp in the colon, so it's extremely important to get the message out that people need to be screened to find these precancerous growths.

Hofer: Many people believe that colon cancer is a man's disease. Is that true?

Cahill: No. Colon cancer is just as common among women as men. This year alone, about 154,000 Americans - men and women alike - will be diagnosed with colon cancer. And more than 52,000 Americans will die of colon cancer.

Hofer: How important is a screening?

Cahill: A screening can literally save your life. If you are screened, the doctors can find the polyp early, and remove it during the screening. Removing the polyp prevents the cancer from ever starting.

Colon cancer is often deadly, but the good news is, if caught early, it's highly treatable. When caught early the five-year survival rate is 90 percent. The bad news is, not enough people are getting tested. Only 39 percent of cases are diagnosed at the early stage, when treatment is generally so successful.

Hofer: Roberta, does age play a factor in who gets colon cancer?

Cahill: Yes, age plays a significant factor. Over 90 percent of colon cancer cases occur in people over age 50. That's why the American Cancer Society recommends getting screenings starting at age 50. However, some people need to get screened even earlier, as they are at an increased risk for colon cancer. For example, people with a family history of the disease should get tested earlier.

Hofer: You said overweight affects your chance for colon cancer. How do I know if I'm at a healthy weight?

Cahill: Weight affects risk for all kinds of cancers. To help determine if you are at a normal weight, you can use the body mass index scale. You can find out your BMI quickly and easily on the American Cancer Society Web site, at www.cancer.org/healthcheck. Here you can get lots of tips on healthy lifestyles, such as exercise and good nutrition.

Hofer: Does alcohol and tobacco use increase colon cancer risk?

Cahill: Yes. Excess alcohol consumption increases your risk of colon cancer, and so does smoking and using other tobacco products.

Hofer: What are the symptoms of colon cancer?

Cahill: There are symptoms of colon cancer, but often by the time you're seeing symptoms the disease has progressed to a dangerous stage. So don't wait for symptoms to talk to your doctor about getting tested. If you're age 50 or above, get screened.

Symptoms of colon cancer include:

-- Unexplained weakness and fatigue

-- Change in bowl habits such as diarrhea, constipation or narrowing of the stool that last for more than a few days.

-- A feeling that you need to have a bowel movement that doesn't go away even after you've had a bowel movement

-- Bleeding from the rectum or blood in the stool, cramping or gnawing stomach pain

-- Decreased appetite

To find out more about colon cancer or any cancer, contact the American Cancer Society at (800) ACS-2345 or visit www.cancer.org.