UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

March 2010

March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month

Blue Cancer RibbonIt is March and I (as well as many others) am feeling a little blue because February was the snowiest month in Pittsburgh history. But the snows have passed and we should all continue to "think blue" because March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month. Just like pink is the designated color to promote breast cancer awareness, blue serves as the designated color for colon cancer awareness. Here at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute we think about colon cancer year around. In January, 2010, a team of researchers led by Robert E. Schoen, MD, MPH, professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, published two different articles exploring the need to better target patients who could benefit from surveillance colonoscopy. And in the same month, UPMC CancerCenter launched the Colorectal Specialty Care Center at the Hillman Cancer Center, under the leadership of David Bartlett, MD, chief of the division of surgical oncology. These two events reflect our continued commitment to improve prevention, early detection and state-of-the-art treatment of colon cancer, a disease that doctors will diagnose approximately 150,000 times in the United States this year.

According to Dr. Schoen's studies, surveillance colonoscopy is paradoxically both overused and underused in certain patient populations. The first study, published in the January edition of the journal Gastroenterology, demonstrates a substantial overuse of surveillance colonoscopy among low-risk patients and under-use among high risk patients while the second study, published in the January edition of GIE: Gastrointestinal Endoscopy, shows a persistent, ongoing risk of developing colon cancer despite colonoscopy to remove polyps, especially among high-risk patient groups. Together, the studies are a call-to-action to align colonoscopy use with patient risk in order to ensure the right patient populations are being screened at the right intervals.

Colonoscopies are considered a "gold standard" in terms of preventing and detecting colon cancer and a decrease in colon cancer mortality was reported last year. Nonetheless many people will unfortunately be diagnosed with this disease, and over 50,000 will die from it in the U.S. this year. We are working relentlessly to reduce this burden. For patients diagnosed with an advanced form of colon cancer, UPMC CancerCenter now offers a Colorectal Cancer Specialty Care Center at the Hillman Cancer Center one day each week. Patients referred to the Center will be able to meet with all of the professionals involved in their care — from their medical oncologists, to their surgeons, to nutritionists and palliative care specialists, in a short period of time, while being taken care of throughout the process by a personal nurse coordinator.

While we continue seeking improved treatments and an eventual cure for colon cancer, there are small steps you can take to reduce your risk. If you are 50 years of age or older, consult with your doctor about whether a baseline colonoscopy is right for you. Do your best to be physically active and eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. As always, if you smoke, try to quit and if you drink, do so moderately. We don't know all of the causes of colon cancer but this advice is good for cancer prevention generally and colon cancer prevention, specifically. We are proud to be able to offer services like the Colorectal Specialty Care Center but we are even happier if you never need to utilize them.

It's exciting to work for an organization that participates in all facets of cancer care — from basic research in the laboratory to innovative treatment to large national studies like Dr. Schoen's. All of us are dedicated to working together to determine how to best serve our patient population. We don't have a cure for colon cancer yet, but with the ingenuity and dedication of such talented individuals, perhaps it's not far away.