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March has been the national and statewide observance of Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, but because the disease continues to be the second leading cause of cancer deaths behind only lung cancer, awareness of the importance of screening and prevention remains an everyday lifesaving personal health issue, according to the Harford County Health Department.

According to the American Cancer Society, colon and rectal cancer remains the second leading cause of cancer death in Maryland and in the United States among men and women, combined, behind only lung cancer. While this cancer is almost entirely preventable through timely screening, approximately 147,000 new colorectal cancer cases were reported in the United States in 2009 and almost 50,000 people in the country are expected to die annually. In Maryland, the ACS estimated 2,620 new cases and 940 deaths in 2009.

Colorectal cancer testing can identify the disease early when treatment can be most effective. When colorectal cancer is caught early, 90 percent can be cured. Despite the benefits of early testing, however, less than four in 10 cases of colorectal cancer are caught in an early stage. More than nine out of 10 cases of colorectal cancer are found in people ages 50 years and older.

“An alarming 20 percent of Marylanders age 50 years and over have never been tested for colorectal cancer,” Harford health department cancer prevention services spokesperson Susan Twigg said in a press release. “The health department urges all Harford County residents 50 years of age or older, or who are otherwise at increased risk of colon cancer because of personal or family medical history to use their private health insurance, Medicaid or Medicare benefits to seek colorectal cancer testing.”

The American Cancer Society recommends testing for all people ages 50 years and older and before 50 years of age for people with a personal or family history of colorectal cancer or adenomatous polyps (small growths that can turn into cancer) and individuals with a history of inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis, Crohn colitis). Women with cancer of the ovary or endometrium (womb) before the age of 50 also need to start testing earlier.

Signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer may include:

o Bleeding from the rectum or blood in the stool;

o Change in bowel habits;

o Abdominal mass;

o Cramps or pain; and

o Iron deficiency anemia that is not caused by other conditions.

“Colorectal cancer often is referred to as one of many ‘silent killers,’” Twigg said in the release. “A person with early stages of colorectal cancer might not have signs or symptoms. This person can look healthy, feel fine and not know there is a problem.”

Several screening methods are available, the most effective of which is a colonoscopy, where a doctor uses a flexible tube containing a scope to look inside the colon (also called the large intestine). If polyps are identified, the procedure also allows doctors to remove these polyps before they can turn cancerous. Other tests check for the presence of blood in a person’s stool and when blood is found, generally require follow-up with a colonoscopy. Twigg strongly advises to ask your doctor if you should get screened for colorectal cancer.

For more information about colorectal cancer screening or to obtain information about health department services, visit the Harford County Health Department Web site, www.harfordcountyhealth.com or call 410-612-1780.


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