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Colon Cancer: Shrinking the risks brought on by advancing age

  • CHRIS PARKER/TIMES NEWS Colorectal surgeon Dr. W. Terence Reilly will now see patients at St. Luke's Miners Memorial Hospital, Coaldale.
    CHRIS PARKER/TIMES NEWS Colorectal surgeon Dr. W. Terence Reilly will now see patients at St. Luke's Miners Memorial Hospital, Coaldale.
Published March 27. 2010 09:00AM

Suffering from the pain of inflammatory bowel disease, hemorrhoids or other lower digestive tract ailments is hard enough, but a long car ride can be excruciating.

So, when colorectal surgeon Dr. W. Terence Reilly realized how daunting the hour-long trek from Schuylkill County to his Bethlehem office was for many of his patients, he made the decision to come to them instead.

Now, Reilly, along with colleagues Camille Eyvazzadeh and Daniel J. Bowers, will be treating patients at St. Luke's Miners Memorial Hospital, Coaldale.

"We'll be coming here on an intermittent basis to see outpatients and to provide services for outpatient surgery," he said.

Reilly trained under several well-respected physicians, including Dr. Herand Abcarian, who was named among America's Top Doctors in 2003, 2007 and 2009 by Castle Connolly Medical Ltd., a health care research and information company. Reilly trained at the renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and did research there for two years. He has been in practice for 10 years.

Reilly's practice, Reilly-Eyvazzadeh Colon-Rectal Center, is the only one in Pennsylvania trained to use one of the most recent methods of repairing prolapsed rectums, a condition mostly found in older women. The STARR (Stapled Transanal Rectal Resection) procedure uses a stapling device that allows the surgeon to repair prolapsed rectums through a less-invasive means, without having to operate through the abdomen.

Most commonly, Reilly sees patients with hemorrhoids, anal fissures, diverticulitis, polyps and cancer and Inflammatory Bowel Disease, which is Crohn's and ulcerative colitis.

Reilly, who is also affiliated with St. Luke's hospitals in Bethlehem, Quakertown and Allentown, began seeing patients St. Luke's in Coaldale this month, which is, coincidentally, national Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month.

Cancer of the colon/rectum is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. About 150,000 Americans get colon and rectal cancer each year, Reilly said, and about one-third of them die from the disease. As our population ages, more cases are expected to develop. The risk of developing colorectal cancer increases with advancing age. More than 90 percent of cases occur in people aged 50 or older, according to CDC.

But Reilly said he's seeing more people at younger ages.

"The group under 50 is really getting kind of big," he said.

That could be a consequence of genetics, or of an increasingly polluted environment.

"Something in the environment is causing us to have more colorectal disease," he said.

Hereditary colon cancer accounts for about 5-15 percent of cases, Reilly said.

Regular screening can reduce the risk of cancer, often stopping malignant growths before they start. More people are being screened, and that may be the reason doctors in Carbon and Schuylkill counties saw fewer people with colorectal cancer between 2002-06 than they did between 1992-96, according to the state Department of Health.

Screening is so important, especially for those age 50 and older, that in Sept. 2009, CDC awarded a total of $22 million to 26 states and tribal organizations, including Pennsylvania, to provide screening services for low- income people aged 50-64 years who are underinsured or uninsured. The awards range from $358,283 to $1.1 million. Pennsylvania's share was $1,050,000.

"It was one of the highest awards made," said spokeswoman Stacy Kriedeman.

However, she said, "only 33 percent of the funds can be spent on actual colon cancer screening. The primary focus of the grant is to increase the rates of colon cancer screening in our state to 80 percent by 2014. Currently, we estimate that only 35 percent of Pennsylvanians are up-to-date with their colon cancer screening."

Kriedeman said the funds will also be used for raising awareness.

"We're working to boost rates through system change as well as public and professional education," she said.

The most reliable screening method is a colonoscopy, which will find polyps - growths on the surface of the colon - or tumors.

"Removal of a polyp will prevent the growth of a cancer and will let the physician know that the patient is at risk for growth of other polyps," Reilly said.

During a colonoscopy, the doctor gently eases a thin, hollow, lighted tube with a tiny video camera into a sedated patient's colon. "The sedation is wonderful - you probably won't even remember it," Reilly said.

The images are transmitted to a screen, allowing the doctor to inspect the walls of the colon.

If polyps are found, they can usually be removed during the procedure, Reilly said.

The procedure is painless, and done on an out-patient basis.

In recent years, the need for colonoscopies has been brought to the public's attention through an increased number of public service announcements and celebrity endorsements. In July, 2003, requests for colonoscopies soared after television news personality Katie Couric televised her own procedure.

The publicity helps people to "demystify it and make it easier to come to terms with the idea," Reilly said.

Screenings are important because the disease frequently remains silent until its later stages.

"The most common symptom associated with colon cancer is no symptom," Reilly said. "When you have symptoms, it's late. Sometimes too late."

Those later symptoms include bleeding, constipation and pain in the abdomen.

Screenings should start at age 50. If a person has other risk factors, such as a family history of cancer, he or she should be screened earlier.

And please, Reilly said, don't be squeamish.

"It's extremely common to have colon and rectal concerns. So you're in good company. And we're good at this. We do a lot of it," he said. "And we try to make the whole process as comfortable as we can. There is a lot more benefit than risk."

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