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Short End Of The Scope For Women In Colon Cancer Screening

by Jennifer Wider, MD

(Washington DC, 3/18/04): Colon cancer is the third most common cancer among women and men in the United States and the second leading cause of cancer deaths, according to the American Gastroenterological Association. More women over the age of 75 will die of colorectal cancer than from breast cancer. Despite these numbers, many women do not consider colorectal cancer a major threat to their health.

"Women seem better educated and more aware of breast cancer," Andrew Chan, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, said. "Although the attention devoted to breast cancer is appropriate and justified, colon cancer sometimes gets overlooked by both the public and the media."

Women seem to be unaware of how common colon cancer is.

"There is a misconception that it is a disease of men," said Linda Rabeneck, MD, MPH, professor of medicine and director of gastroenterology division at the University of Toronto in Canada.

A significant number of women and men seem to be embarrassed to even discuss colorectal cancer and to go for screening. However, studies have shown that women are more likely to participate in screening programs. This may serve as an advantage in overcoming the embarrassment factor.

"Although little work has been done on this," Rabeneck said of the embarrassment issue, "women in general, compared with men, are more familiar with, have more experience with cancer screening."

Colorectal cancer has a good prognosis and is highly treatable if detected in the early stages. Screening is vital because pre-cancerous polyps are often found and treated even before they progress into cancer.

The American Cancer Society recommends a variety of screening tests to help prevent colorectal cancer. For women and men over the age of 50, an annual fecal occult blood test should be performed at the doctor's office to look for blood in the stool. Every five years, a flexible sigmoidoscopy is recommended, and every ten years, a colonoscopy should be performed.

" However, if one has a family history of colon cancer, or a personal history of bowel diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, screening may begin earlier," Chan said. "This should be based on a discussion with one's doctor."

New and less invasive options for colorectal cancer screening are on the horizon.

"Virtual colonoscopy is a promising and evolving technology," Rabeneck said. "In my opinion, it is not yet ready for widespread use, outside of research trials. We just do not yet know enough about its accuracy."

The Society for Women's Health Research is the nation's only not-for-profit organization whose sole mission is to improve the health of women through research. Founded in 1990, the Society brought to national attention the need for the appropriate inclusion of women in major medical research studies and the resulting need for more information about conditions affecting women. The Society advocates increased funding for research on women's health, encourages the study of sex differences that may affect the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of disease, and promotes the inclusion of women in medical research studies. Dr. Donnica Moore has been a member of the Society since 1990 and is a past member of its Board of Directors.

Created: 3/18/2004  -  Jennifer Wider, M.D.
Reviewed: 3/18/2004  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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