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No family history of colon cancer: Karen's story

  • Karen Sonnenberg had no worries when she scheduled a colonoscopy last March. Her first colonoscopy had been done when she was 50, 10 years ago. "It all went so smoothly. It was not a big deal at all," she said.

    But this time, her doctor found a polyp. A few days later, she learned it was cancer. That was a shock. "I have no cancer history at all in my family," she said.

    Fortunately for Sonnenberg, she had followed current colon cancer screening guidelines—a colonoscopy every 10 years after age 50. After she had colon surgery at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in April, doctors were able to determine that the cancer had not spread beyond the colon and she required no further treatment.

    Screening is key

    "Colon cancer screening is extremely important because early detection is the key to curing the disease," said Lawrence Burgart, MD, pathologist and chairman, Oncology Clinical Service Line Gastrointestinal Program Committee, Allina Health.

    In fact, the number of colon cancer deaths in the United States is dropping, and experts say that one reason is an increased emphasis on screening. But a significant number of people still are not being screened.

    Allina Health is making great strides to change this. Clinic providers discuss colon cancer with patients as part of their regular clinic visits and provide screening information to those who are due. As a result, the percentage of clinic patients who are up to date on colon cancer screening rose from 56.8 percent in 2011 to 75.5 percent in 2013.

    "The value of colon cancer screening is well-supported by the evidence," said Rod Christensen, MD, chief medical officer, Allina Health clinics. "We want to do all we can to help people make informed decisions about their health, so this is just doing our part to remind our patients and make it easy for them to follow up."

    Screening methods

    There are several ways to screen for colon cancer. The best method for you may depend on cost, personal preference and medical history. Your health care provider can help you decide.

    While colonoscopy is the method most often associated with colon cancer screening, recent improvements in fecal occult blood testing have made it a reasonable choice for many patients, especially if insurance does not cover screening colonoscopy. The test determines if there is blood hidden in the stool, which can be a sign of polyps or cancer. "It has become much more sensitive, and it no longer requires that patients avoid red meat and other foods before taking the test," said Burgart.

    Treating colon cancer

    If colon cancer is diagnosed, treatment may include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

    Allina Health has all of the specialists and resources needed for treatment, support and rehabilitation. At Allina Health hospitals, patients can be assured of timely follow-up and evidence-based care. Each patient's case is handled by a team of experts, including surgeons, pathologists, oncologists and radiologists.

    Cancer care coordinators are also part of the team. The coordinator serves as the patient's single point of contact throughout treatment and follow-up care. "We help to coordinate tests and appointments, introduce patients to resources and provide ongoing support and education," said Dustin Powers, RN, cancer care coordinator, Colorectal Cancer Program, Virginia Piper Cancer Institute® - Abbott Northwestern Hospital.

    Reducing your risk

    While having a family history of colon cancer increases your risk for the disease, 70 percent of people diagnosed have no family history. In fact, one of the biggest risk factors is age - most cases occur in people older than age 50.

    Lifestyle factors also play a role. "Smoking, obesity, diets that are high in fat and red meat, and heavy alcohol consumption have all been linked to colon cancers," said Christina Pieper-Bigelow, MD, a gastroenterologist at Allina Health Clinic - Hastings. "Many of the recommendations that reduce risk for other diseases also apply to colon cancer: Eat more fruits and vegetables, get regular exercise and don't smoke."

    But anyone can get colon cancer. Recalling the day that she learned her cancer had not spread, Sonnenberg said, "I felt really lucky. There is no reason you should put off colon cancer screening." 

  • Karen Sonnenberg pets her dog Jack