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Colorectal Cancer: This “Silent Killer” is more common than you think


The recent deaths of beloved actor Kirstie Alley and soccer legend Pele have once again put the spotlight on colorectal cancer, the disease that took their lives. March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, a time to highlight the importance of proper screening, as well as to promote healthy lifestyle habits that can decrease a person’s risk of developing the disease. 

“Colorectal cancer is called the “silent killer” because it often does not have any noticeable symptoms in the initial stages, which leads to delayed detection after the disease has reached a critical point,” says Dr. Lorenc Malellari, Colorectal Surgeon at Dignity Health - Mercy and Memorial Hospitals in Bakersfield. 

The most common symptoms include blood in the stool, abdominal cramping, fatigue, and weight loss. Patients may also notice changes in the shape and frequency of bowel movements. 

The disease is more common than most people realize. Excluding skin cancers, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in the U.S. and accounts for the second most cancer-related deaths for men and women. In recent years, there has also been an alarming uptick in the number of patients diagnosed under the age of 50.

“That is a very worrisome finding because at this time we don’t have a clear reason for why this is occurring,” says Dr. Malellari. “It’s so important to spread awareness about this cancer because right now more people die from this disease than have to.” 

Experts say prevention is key. The most effective tool to reduce your risk of colorectal cancer is to get screened routinely, beginning at age 45. The colonoscopy remains the gold standard for detecting colorectal cancer, but many people put off this potentially lifesaving exam out of fear. 

“Most concerns that patients have when they hear the word colonoscopy are myths and misconceptions,” says Dr. Malellari. “Once we discuss the specifics of the procedure their fears are usually put to rest, and afterward most people say it wasn’t as bad as they thought it was going to be.” 

During the procedure, a doctor inserts a flexible tube with a light and camera on the end through the rectum to examine the colon. The tube allows the doctor to remove any polyps (small growths on the surface of the colon or rectum) that may be precancerous. Other forms of screening include a stool test, such as Cologuard which can detect abnormal DNA strands in fecal matter or a Fecal Immunochemical Test (FIT) which uses antibodies to detect blood in the stool. 

If you do receive a diagnosis of colorectal cancer, there are many advanced treatment options. The most common include surgery to remove the cancer, chemotherapy, and radiation

“The medical community is constantly improving treatment techniques. We’ve added minimally invasive and robotic surgery options, as well as the use of immunotherapy,” says Dr. Malellari. “Getting a diagnosis of cancer is a very traumatic experience for patients, so being able to walk through a treatment plan with them and being able to achieve success makes what I do worthwhile every single day.” 

There are many risk factors for colorectal cancer that are out of your control, such as age, race, and family history. While you can’t change genetics, it may be possible to lower your risk by addressing things you can change, like adopting a healthy diet, increasing fiber intake, losing weight, or quitting smoking. Above all, experts say to pay attention to your body. 

“If something seems off contact your doctor right away so you can get evaluated. The worst thing you can do is ignore the symptoms.” 

Dignity Health offers specialized surgical options for the treatment of cancer, including daVinci robotic-assisted surgery, available at both Memorial Hospital and the S.A. Camp Companies Robotic Surgical Center at Mercy Hospitals.

To find a Dignity Health Bakersfield doctor or surgeon, please call (661) 840-5884 or use our Find a Doctor search tool.