Colon cancer screenings on the rise in D.C. area

WTOP\'s morning crew surprised Mike with a cake last week. (WTOP Photo/Kristi King)

Paula Wolfson, wtop.com

WASHINGTON – The Washington, D.C., area has been hit hard by colon cancer, but doctors are seeing the first faint signs of hope.

The region has the highest death rate in the country from colon cancer. While the incidence of colon cancer is coming down nationwide, that decrease has not been as evident in the D.C. area.

“The D.C. area is a hotbed for colorectal cancer,” says Dr. John Marshall, director of the Ruesch Center for the Cure of Gastrointestinal Cancers at Medstar Georgetown University Hospital.

He suggests one contributing factor may be the area’s low colon cancer screening rate.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website says D.C. and Maryland have some of the worst screening rates in the country, with Virginia faring only slightly better.

But Marshall says that is beginning to change.

“We are seeing more uptake in screening here in the D.C. area and we hope that translates into a fall in cancer mortality,” he says.

Marshall says efforts to raise awareness of the disease are picking up steam, especially in March, which is Colon Cancer Awareness Month.

For colon cancer survivors like WTOP Morning Editor Mike Jakaitis, the entire month is a call to action.

“This month means a lot to me,” he says. “That is why I am a real pain in the butt – pun intended – when it comes to people getting screened.”

Jakaitis was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2006, at the age of 36. When he first showed symptoms, his wife tricked him into seeing their family doctor, who prescribed a colonoscopy on the spot.

He says he is now on a mission to convince others of the power of a colonoscopy to detect cancer early, when it is most curable.

“I am living proof,” he says. “If I didn’t get the colonoscopy, I wouldn’t be here.”

The CDC re commends regular screening starting at age 50 and continuing until 75, with a colonoscopy every 10 years and fecal occult blood tests annually. The CDC says those who have a higher risk can start earlier or be tested more frequently.

Those guidelines could change. Marshall says there has been a rise in cases involving younger patients like Jakaitis, whose colonoscopy came after he told his doctor about his initial symptoms.

The American Cancer Society says symptoms can range from a change in bowel habits to weakness and fatigue and even unintended weight loss.

Marshall says some patients have a strong family history, but many do not. He also notes that like heart disease, prevention is key.

“Physical activity, exercise and a high-fiber, low-fat diet actually prevent the disease,” he says.

Jakaitis and thousands of other runners and walkers will be getting some extra physical activity on Sunday, March 24, when they will take to the streets of D.C. for the annual Scope it Out 5K Run/Walk for Colon Cancer Awareness.

The event is organized by Chris4Life, a foundation that supports colon cancer research and aims to spread awareness of the disease.

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