Colorectal cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed malignancy in America. But thanks to remarkable advances in screening and treatments, survival rates have been steadily improving for more than 20 years.
“Colorectal cancer is highly curable when it’s detected in the early stages,” says Nora Evans, MD, a colon and rectal surgeon at Saddleback Memorial Medical Center. “That’s why regular screening exams are so important.” In fact, if every adult aged 50 or older was routinely tested, at least 60 percent of deaths from colorectal cancer could be prevented, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A colonoscopy is considered the “gold standard” for colorectal cancer testing. During this screening, a slender, lighted tube introduced through the rectum is used to visualize the entire colon and large intestine, checking for signs of cancer. This includes precancerous polyps—benign growths that may eventually become malignant. During the procedure, doctors remove any growths they discover and send tissue samples to the pathology lab for biopsy.
Saddleback Memorial also offers virtual colonoscopies. This streamlined method of detecting polyps and other masses involves a three-dimensional CT scan of the rectum and entire colon. The test requires the same bowel-cleansing preparation as a traditional colonoscopy, including fasting. If polyps are detected, the patient must have a conventional colonoscopy so the growths can be removed for biopsy.
People who opt for a colonoscopy should be tested every 10 years between the ages of 50 and 75.
Generally, patients at increased risk for the disease should begin earlier and undergo the test every three to five years. Inflammatory bowel disease, precancerous polyps and a family history of colorectal cancer are three of many risk factors that can predispose people to the disease.
Should signs of cancer be found, surgery is the most common treatment. At Saddleback Memorial, patients have access to robotic-assisted surgery using the da Vinci® Surgical System. The benefits of this minimally invasive technology are numerous, including less bleeding, significantly smaller incisions, reduced pain, minimal scarring and a faster recovery.
Quality of Life
“The da Vinci system is truly a breakthrough for many types of cancer surgery, including colorectal cancer,” says Dr. Evans. “The precision of robotic-assisted surgery has led to a dramatic reduction in the number of permanent colostomies. Without a colostomy—an opening in the colon through which stool is passed into a bag on the outside of the body—patients can maintain their quality of life.” Robotic-assisted surgery has also improved the preservation of bowel, bladder and sexual function in colorectal patients. In part, this is due to the system’s unprecedented imaging capabilities, which make it easier to avoid the tiny nerves that govern these functions.