Preventive measures Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2007

Colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. But, with proper care and early testing, it is quite preventable, says Connie Bollin, director, Akron General McDowell Cancer Center. Bollin emphasizes that business executives can help both themselves and their employees with testing programs and similar programs that offer early detection.

“Any insurance plan you provide workers should include colorectal cancer screening test benefits,” she says.

Smart Business asked Bollin about the causes and prevention of this disease.

Who is at risk for colorectal cancer?

Colorectal cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer. It does not discriminate between men and women, executive or employee, although 90 percent of all cases occur after the age of 50. A key to knowing if you are at risk for the disease is knowing your family medical history and sharing that information with your health care professional. Together, you can determine if testing should be performed at an earlier age and which tests are most appropriate for you.

Is this a sex-related or race-related cancer?

Experts suggest that African-Americans begin their screenings at age 45 because research findings have shown that population diagnosed at a younger age. Some indications that you are at high risk for the disease and may need to be tested earlier include:

  • Being over the age of 50

  • African-American

  • A personal or family history of colorectal cancer

  • A personal or family history of benign colorectal polyps

  • A personal or family history of Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis or inflammatory bowel disease

  • Endometrial/ovarian cancer before the age of 60

  • People who use tobacco, excessive alcohol consumption, a sedentary lifestyle and obesity

Is colorectal cancer preventable?

Definitely. This disease can be prevented by early identification and removal of pre-cancerous polyps. These can only be detected through colorectal screenings. The Cancer Research and Prevention Foundation states, ‘30,000 to 44,000 lives a year could be saved if everyone over 50 got screened for colorectal cancer.’ That means that 50 to 80 percent of people who are expected to die of colorectal cancer in 2007 — 52,180 lives — could have been saved if they would have gotten tested.

What are the early symptoms?

Colorectal cancer, many times, develops without any symptoms. That is why getting screened is so important. Talk to your health care professional about colorectal screenings and, based on your family history, when and how often you should be screened. Once you have the disease, some symptoms may develop, such as rectal bleeding, change in bowel habits, weight loss for no apparent reason, vomiting, tiredness and fatigue, or frequent gas pains.

Some of these symptoms we all may experience at some times, but if you have any of them for more than two weeks, see your health care professional.

What kinds of screening tests are available?

The screening test used depends upon your medical history. You and your health care professional should discuss which screening is right for you, as well as how often it’s performed. The basic guidelines to follow for men and women beginning at age 50 — or 45 if you are African-American:

  • A fecal occult blood test annually

  • A sigmoidoscopy every five years, or a colonoscopy or double contrast barium enema every five to 10 years

  • A digital rectal exam every five to 10 years at the time of your screening sigmoidoscopy, colonoscopy or barium enema

Does insurance pay for screenings?

Because it is one of the most preventable cancers, you would think all insurance companies would not only pay and promote screening, but that businesses and employers would offer incentives to their employees to comply and get screened. Medicare does pay for screening and some states mandate that insurance companies do, as well. Unfortunately, Ohio is not one of them. So now and during the month of March — which has been designated National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month — contact your state legislators and encourage them to pass legislation to improve insurance coverage for screening.

How do I reduce my risk?

The most effective way is to undergo routine colorectal screening tests. Other suggestions I’d offer would be to eat a diet that includes lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, take a multivitamin and calcium, limit your alcohol intake, exercise and do not use tobacco.

CONNIE T. BOLLIN is a registered nurse with a B.S. degree in health and physical education, and a health care executive MBA. She has been the director of the Akron General McDowell Cancer Center since 2003 and is a board of trustees member of the Association of Community Cancer Centers, a member of the Association of Cancer Executives and a member of the Summit County Colorectal Cancer Taskforce. Reach her at (330) 344-5847 or

Connie T. Bollin, R.N.
Akron General McDowell Cancer Center