Most all of us know someone, or at least have heard of someone, with cancer. So, what is cancer?
From the time we are conceived, our cells, in a most remarkable way, become bone, blood, skin, liver, brain, and the hundreds of other tissues in our body.
They are strictly regulated, repairing injuries, fighting infections, making hormones. However, over time, mistakes begin to happen. Maybe it’s genetic, maybe a chemical we call a carcinogen (for example, tobacco), or maybe it’s just “wearing out.” But, when this happens, a cell starts growing wildly, out of control, dividing thousands, millions of times, eventually spreading to other areas of the body. This is cancer.
You need to know that cancers are different. There are cancer s of the skin, liver, brain, breast, colon, and every tissue in the body. Some cancers grow very slowly…so slowly that they will probably never harm you. Others grow very fast, spreading before you even know they are there. Even in one tissue, for example the breast, some cancers grow very slow, others very fast. The science of cancer is very complex!
Cancer of the colon, the last part of our bowel, is, for some reason, quite common in Alaskan Natives. It starts as a small abnormal growth on the lining of the colon, and over years, becomes larger, becomes a polyp (looks like a “wart” or “mushroom”). As it enlarges, the cells slowly become cancerous, and may eventually start spreading through the colon wall.
If you can find the polyp early, and remove it, then you can prevent a cancer from forming. And we do that best with “colonoscopy.” You make your colon very clean (by drinking that stuff!), and the “scope” (the diameter of your little finger with a very fine camera on it) is passed slowly through your colon, carefully looking for polyps or abnormalities (you are sleepy and remember little of this). Polyps are removed. A larger growth may be biopsied (“sampled”) and sent to the lab. If your exam is normal, you may not need another for 10 years, and if there are polyps, maybe in 5 years. If a cancer is found, then you are referred to the surgeon for management.
Our guidelines, for our population, we recommend starting at the age of 40. For more info, call 451- 6682, Ext. 3647 or 3710.