Making sense of colorectal cancer headlines

by Robert Bresalier, MD

Did you hear the one about the cancer-sniffing dogs?

Sounds crazy, right? This is just one of many recent headlines that may leave you scratching your head.

Not every study you read in the news is the final word. But recent research can provide interesting new insight on colorectal cancer — the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States.

Here’s some insight to help you make sense of recent colorectal cancer headlines.

Sniff out fact from fiction

Japanese researchers found a Labrador Retriever could be trained to sniff out colon cancer. But don’t hold your breath waiting for Fido to show up at your next check-up.

This was a single study done with one dog among a small group of participants.

It takes a number of studies — including lab, animal and human testing — before most methods or substances are proven effective in preventing cancer.

Just because you saw this story on the evening news doesn’t mean we should invest in training a pack of cancer-sniffing dogs.

Aspirin may lower colon cancer risks

One new study claims that taking an aspirin a day may lower your odds of dying from colon cancer. The thought is that aspirin may slow the growth of polyps (small growths on the lining of the colon that may become cancer).

By no means should everyone take a daily dose of aspirin. But if you’re more likely to develop the disease, taking as little as 81 mg a day may prove protective.

Talk to your doctor. You may benefit from a daily aspirin if:

  • you have a family history of colorectal cancer, or
  • your doctor has prescribed aspirin to curb your risk of heart attack or stroke.

Colonoscopy still most recommended

Another recent headline featured a study on flexible sigmoidoscopy. The study results show that a one-time exam performed on 54- to 60-year-olds helped cut the number of new colon cancer cases and deaths.

This is exciting news for some because this test costs less than a colonoscopy.

During a sigmoidoscopy, a doctor looks at your rectum and lower colon using a lighted instrument. The doctor also can find and remove suspicious polyps, just like the colonoscopy.

But this exam has drawbacks.

It still requires some bowel preparation. It only examines the lower half of the colon, unlike the colonoscopy which examines the entire colon. And, if there are any abnormal findings, a follow-up colonoscopy is needed.

So while these study results may look promising, the colonoscopy is still the single most effective test to find and prevent colorectal cancer.

Alternatively, you might consider getting a virtual colonoscopy. But if polyps are found during the exam, you’ll still have to undergo a traditional colonoscopy to remove them.

Always talk to your doctor first

When you read headlines like this one, find and read the original study report. Look for details about the research done to support this new theory.

It’s important to stay informed, but be sure to look beyond the attention-grabbing headlines.

Ask your doctor plenty of questions. Find out your options and learn about the risks and benefits.

And remember, getting regular screening exams, like the colonoscopy, is the best way to prevent diseases like colorectal cancer.

Robert Bresalier is professor of gastroenterology, hepatology and nutrition at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

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