New Clinic Offers Specialized Care for Patients at High Risk for Developing Colorectal Cancer
Patients offered genetic testing, early screening and prevention strategies to lower risk
People who have a family history of colorectal cancer are more likely to get the disease than the general population. These patients are also more likely to be stricken with the disease at a younger age. While the heightened risk is worrisome, experts say there are steps people can take to lower their risk through personalized risk assessment and targeted screening and prevention of colorectal cancer. Northwestern Medicine recently launched a new clinic to serve this population by providing genetic testing and specialized care for patients who may be at an increased risk for colon cancer. Through a multidisciplinary approach, the program helps patients determine their risk factors, cope with the information and take steps to protect their health.
“Early detection is imperative to the successful treatment of colon cancer,” saidBarbara Jung, MD, Northwestern Medicine gastroenterologist. “When detected in its earliest stage, colon cancer is largely curable, which is why it’s important to know your risk so you can take preventative measures.”
The High Risk Colorectal Cancer Clinic aims to lower the rate of colorectal cancer and improve outcomes through close monitoring for patients who are genetically predisposed to the disease. As a beginning step, patients with a strong family history of the disease are offered genetic testing to determine their risk.
“Being ‘high risk’ does not necessarily mean you will get the disease, but it is reason enough to take charge of your health and be proactive about screening,” said Jung who is also an assistant professor of gastroenterology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “We work with patients to combat the disease before it even begins through more frequent colonoscopies and strategies to improve overall health such as proper nutrition and exercise.”
Patients who come to the High Risk Colorectal Cancer Clinic have access to a multidisciplinary health team consisting of gastroenterologists, surgeons, primary care physicians, nurses, nutritionists, psychologists and a health prevention specialist. Together, they tailor their approach to suit each patient’s unique needs. Support groups are also available.
“For some patients, a one-time visit may be enough. For others, regular appointments are appropriate. But the first step for everyone is to know your risk,” said Jung. “Examine your family history, and if colorectal cancer is present, talk with your doctor about strategies to lower your risk,” said Jung.
Symptoms of colorectal cancer can include a change in your bowel habits, rectal bleeding, persistent abdominal discomfort, weakness and unexplained weight loss. However, many people with colon cancer experience no symptoms in the early stages of the disease. The American Cancer Society recommends people to get tested for colorectal cancer beginning at the age of 50, sooner if there is a family history of the disease.
“Generally speaking, people with a strong family history should have their first colonoscopy 10 years earlier than when their immediate family member was diagnosed with colorectal cancer. So if your mom was diagnosed at age 50, you may need to consider screening latest by age 40,” said Jung.
Colon cancer many times begins with the formation of polyps on the colon wall that may turn into precancerous cells over time and eventually develop into cancer.
“This process can take years, which puts time on our side,” said Jung. “Regular screening allows us to identify polyps and suspicious lesions early, allowing us to safely remove the tissue before it becomes problematic in most cases.”
The High Risk Colorectal Cancer Clinic is open to patients of all ages, including those who are colon cancer survivors, have family history of the disease or have other high-risk factors such as obesity, poor diet, physical inactivity, smoking, heavy alcohol use and diabetes. For more information or to schedule an appointment, please call 312-926-5620 or visit www.nmh.org.