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Commentary: Have You Scheduled Your Colonoscopy?

Colonoscopies save lives. Just ask Audrey Marcoe.

The 83-year old Alexandria resident underwent a colonoscopy in December at Inova Alexandria Hospital due to a severe bout of anemia that left her exhausted and significantly underweight. Her doctors suspected she might be bleeding into her colon. The exam revealed a large cancerous tumor on her ascending colon that was likely causing her anemia. She would need surgery to remove it.

“I was surprised at this, truthfully,” she said. “I just never thought I’d get it.”

Cancers of the colon and rectum — part of the body’s digestive system — are unfortunately rather common, especially among Americans age 50 and older. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), colorectal cancer is the second most diagnosed cancer among men and women combined. It will cause an estimated 50,000 deaths this year alone. Fortunately, those numbers have been declining for the last two decades thanks to proper screening, increased disease awareness (remember TV anchorwoman Katie Couric’s colonoscopy on the “Today” show?) and advances in treatments and surgical techniques.

Luckily for Ms. Marcoe, those advanced techniques were available close to home at Inova Alexandria Hospital. After doing some research, she turned to the expertise of Dr. Lawrence Stern, Inova Alexandria’s Medical Director for Colon and Rectal Surgery. Dr. Stern leads the hospital’s team of board-certified colorectal surgeons — the largest group in the area — who are among the few in the region offering the most advanced minimally invasive colorectal procedures. Minimally invasive procedures use small incisions that generally result in quicker recoveries and shorter hospital stays compared to standard “open” surgeries.

In February, Dr. Stern performed a single incision laparoscopic right colectomy on Ms. Marcoe. The relatively new procedure involves removing the tumor and surrounding lymph nodes and reconnecting the healthy segments of the colon via a laparoscope — a tube with a camera — inserted through the abdomen. Unlike traditional minimally invasive surgeries that involve several small incisions for all the surgeon’s instruments, Ms. Marcoe’s delicate surgery was conducted via just one abdominal incision measuring only three centimeters long.

Just three days after surgery, Ms. Marcoe returned home. Follow-up confirms her cancer was caught in time and chemotherapy is not required. She has since resumed her regular activities, including daily exercise, running errands and dining out with friends — life.

Colorectal cancer can be successfully treated if caught early. Routine screening is the key. The ACS recommends you get screened for colorectal cancer beginning at age 50 and continue once every 10 years thereafter. It’s important you follow these guidelines because colorectal cancers exhibit few, if any, symptoms in the early stages. Those with a family history of colorectal polyps, or other cancer should talk to their doctor about getting screened sooner.

Be sure to talk with your doctor about your family history and when to begin screening for colorectal cancer. You can find more information about colorectal cancer, including symptoms, treatment options and physicians at inova.org/cancer.