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Doctors say colon cancer is preventable, curable

Published: Thursday, Feb. 9 2012 2:52 p.m. MST

Dr. Tae Kim is a surgeon at LDS Hospital. He will be participating Saturday in the Deseret News/Intermountain Healthcare Health Hotline about colorectal cancer. Photo taken Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Colorectal cancer is entirely preventable and in most cases can be cured, according to a local surgeon.

"By getting the word out, we can really make a difference in people's lives," said Dr. Tae Kim, a colorectal surgeon at Intermountain Healthcare's LDS Hospital. Kim will be participating in Saturday's Deseret News/Intermountain Healthcare Health Hotline, where doctors will answer questions from the public on the prevention, detection and treatment options of colorectal cancer — one of the most common cancers affecting Americans.

The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports colon cancer as the third-leading cancer in the country, affecting 1.1 million Americans. In Utah, the percentage of those affected is greater, only because Utahns tend to live longer, Kim said.

"Out of all the available cancer screening measures, colonoscopy is the only one that has been proven to decrease the incidence of cancer," he said. Early detection of colon cancer is the only way to be able to prevent it from killing someone.

The biggest risk factor for colon cancer, Kim said, is age.

"If we all lived long enough, I'm certain we'd all get colon cancer," he said.

The lining of the colon is sloughed and regrown nearly every single day, which leaves great potential for mutations in the replication process. Kim equates the process to the actions of a copy machine. Over time, it will break down, he said.

"If you're constantly making copies, something is going to go wrong, the machine is going to give out," he said. The resulting abnormal growths in the colon are called polyps and if left untreated, polyps can lead to the deadly form of cancer.

Polyps can be seen during a common and somewhat invasive 20-minute procedure called a colonoscopy. Anyone over the age of 50 should be getting them, and Kim said polyps are actually found in up to 20 percent of all colonoscopies. Not all of them end up being cancerous, however.

Just 10 percent of the cases of colon cancer result from heredity, he said. Otherwise, the cancer is brought on by natural processes.

Warning signs often include blood in the stool, a change in normal bowel habits, cramps or pain, sudden weight loss or loss of appetite, and general fatigue. By the time symptoms are apparent, it is often too late to prevent cancer from happening, Kim said.

People with a history of colon cancer in their family are cautioned to be tested for it and receive colonoscopies earlier than others; however, Kim said a discrepancy exists in the general guidelines.

Official guidelines indicate that individuals with familial history of the disease should be tested with colonoscopies 10 years prior to whatever age at which the relative's diagnosis was made. However, if that diagnosis is cancer in its final stages, Kim said testing should be done even earlier.

Various prevention claims, including taking aspirin or other medications daily, or eating healthier, may be effective, but Kim said they might take a while to become effective, therefore not producing immediate results.

"As long as we catch it early and people don't wait for symptoms, something can be done about it," he said.

>>Hotline Saturday

The Deseret News/Intermountain Healthcare Hotline focuses on the prevention, detection and treatment options of colorectal cancer. From 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, Dr. Tae Kim, a colorectal surgeon at Intermountain's LDS Hospital, and Dr. Rob Jones, a gastroenterologist at Intermountain Medical Center and Mountain West Gastroenterology, will answer questions from the public. Those with questions can call 1-800-925-8177, toll-free, or post a comment during that time on the Deseret News Facebook page, www.facebook.com/desnews.

E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com Twitter: wendyleonards

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