March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month
A Chelsea Hospital physician answers common questions
Information provided by Chelsea Hospital
In recognition of March as Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, Calista Harbaugh, MD, recently answered questions to help bring attention to the disease and to discuss the medical services and support she provides patients as a colorectal surgeon at Chelsea Hospital.
Q: As a colorectal surgeon, what types of conditions do you treat?
Dr. Harbaugh: I care for patients experiencing a broad scope of illness and disease. I’m blessed to help people prevent and treat cancers, and I treat my patients for all sorts of other conditions of the large intestine, colon and anus. Common illnesses I treat include diverticulitis, prolapse, incontinence and hemorrhoids. I have a very rewarding job; not only do I get to help improve the quality of life for many of my patients through treating the more common illnesses, but I can also help prevent, treat and surveil cancers, which in turn extends the lives of my patients.
Q: March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. What message do you have for those reading this?
Dr. Harbaugh: Prevention and early detection of colorectal cancer can save your life. The unfortunate reality is many people skip their colonoscopy screenings or avoid being seen by a doctor when they experience colon cancer symptoms, such as blood in their stool, a change in bowel habits, constipation, narrow stools, or passing excessive amounts of flatulence. As a physician I’ve heard and seen it all, so there is no reason anyone should make the mistake of keeping it to themselves. I strongly urge anyone with these symptoms to schedule an appointment with their primary care physician.
Q: How common is colon cancer?
Dr. Harbaugh: Colon cancer is one of the most common cancers in the United States today and the second-most common cancer-related death. If a patient is screened and we detect precancerous polyps, it may only require a colonoscopy to remove them. And should it be determined a patient has cancer, if detected early the patient’s outcome improves significantly. The most dangerous thing people can do is delay screening and care because if cancer is present, a delay allows it time to grow and spread, which increases the risk it could begin to affect other important organs. With each day that passes, the mortality rate from colon cancer increases. Unfortunately, colon and rectal cancers are increasing, particularly among younger people even in their 30s and 40s, which is why the recommended age for screening was recently dropped to 45.
Q: When should people be screened for colon cancer?
Dr. Harbaugh: If anyone is noticing blood in their stool, they should get a colonoscopy to determine the cause. We highly encourage everyone to be screened at age 45 and after that as recommended by their physician. This is especially important for people with a family history of colon or rectal cancer, or with symptoms. It is important to continue screening at regular intervals based on your colonoscopy findings as recommended by your doctor and to reach out to your doctor if you start to develop symptoms before your next scheduled screening.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like readers to know?
Dr. Harbaugh: It’s not common for communities the size of Chelsea to have access to so many medical resources. Our community is very fortunate to have access to the Chelsea Hospital specialists. I encourage everyone to develop a relationship with a primary care provider and stay up-to-date on all your important tests and health screenings.
If you have concerns about your colorectal health, speak with your primary care physician. If you don’t have a primary care physician, you can find one near you by visiting http://www.stjoeshealth.org/find-a-doctor.