CALAIS, Maine — It is not usually something most people talk about right after dinner, but on Tuesday, colorectal cancer was the topic of an informational dinner with guest speaker Dr. Robert Chagrasulis of Calais.
“Treatment options are very good for colorectal cancer if found early,” Chagrasulis told the audience. “So the talk tonight really is not just about the disease, but it’s going to be about early detection of the disease.”
More than 35 people attended the session hosted by St. Croix Valley Healthy Communities and held at Bernardini’s Restaurant.
Colorectal cancer is the third-most common cancer overall in the U.S., Chagrasulis said. “The overall risk for everybody is 1 in 19, or 5 percent.”
Fortunately, the number of people diagnosed with colorectal cancer has decreased over the past 20 years as a result of more screening, which results in finding and removing colorectal polyps before they turn into cancer.
“From the first time the first abnormal cells appear, it can take 10 to 15 years to progress to a cancer,” he said. “So you’ve got time in all of this as long as you don’t ignore it until something has grown to be untreatable.”
Most people maintain that preparing for the screening is more of a challenge than the test itself. It usually involves drinking a prescribed solution that Chagrasulis compared to drinking flavored varnish.
After the prep, the test itself involves doctors checking the colon using a colonoscope.
Chagrasulis described the instrument as a thin, flexible tube with a light at the head of it. The instrument allows the doctor not only to detect problems in the colon in the earliest stages, but also to remove polyps.
“Most if not all colon cancers begin with polyps,” he said.
Polyps grow separate from the lining of the wall. “But if it stays there long enough it will grow down through the stalk and then it will move into the colon wall itself,” he said. “So just imagine that the tumor has risen in a polyp and we get it while it is still in the polyp [stage]; it is not going anyplace, it’s in the bucket. But if you ignore it and you don’t have your colonoscopy and it turns to be a cancer and grows downward, then the horse is out of the barn.”
Chagrasulis said there are known facts that are important. The American Cancer Society recommends that people be tested beginning at the age of 50, and earlier if there is a family history of the problem.
People also can help avoid colon cancer by maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
“Diet, weight and exercise,” he said. “All of these are related to a predisposition to colon cancer.”
The doctor suggested eating more fruits and vegetables and less red and processed meats.
Smoking also is a problem.
“Smoking is bad for the lungs, bad for the heart, bad for everything,” he said. “Some of the poisons that are part of the overall cigarette, smokers swallow those and so they have an impact on an increased risk of colon cancer as well as esophagus and stomach [cancers] and other things.”
Excessive drinking also can be problematic. The ACS guideline is for men is to limit drinks to fewer than two a day and women to one or fewer a day.
For information on colon cancer, go to the ACS Web site at www.cancer.org.
St. Croix Valley Healthy Communities is a Healthy Maine Partnership led by a citizens’ coalition dedicated to improving health through education, advocacy and action. The group serves 22 towns in eastern Washington County, assisting in their efforts to reduce teen alcohol use and encourage teens to be tobacco-free and physically active and to eat healthy foods.