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Every year, colon cancer claims the lives of nearly 60,000 individuals in the U.S., and roughly 150,000 new cases are reported, according to the American Cancer Institute, and though it's highly preventable and treatable when caught early.

Walter Reed Bethesda continues to educate patients and staff about the importance of early detection and prevention, and though March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month, the Gastroenterology (GI) clinic promotes a Colon Health Initiative year-round, said Dr. Brooks Cash, deputy commander for medicine at WRNMMC.

“As far as we're concerned, every month is Colon Health Awareness Month,” stated Cash, a Navy captain.

The GI clinic's Colon Health Initiative originally began in 2004 at the former National Naval Medical Center (NNMC), as its own unique division, to promote colon health and pursue research in evaluating the history of polyps cancerous growths on the colon that are a precursor to cancer, Cash continued. Since NNMC and Walter Reed Army Medical Center integrated in September, the GI clinic has broadened this initiative, and incorporated it into its routine practice an accomplishment that he and the GI staff take pride in.

“We're very proud of what we've created,” he added.

The initiative focuses on educating patients about the various screening options available at the medical center, and the convenience of not needing a referral, said Cash. Patients can opt for a virtual colonoscopy (VC), which uses modeling software to produce 2- and 3-D images of the colon. VC uses a small amount of radiation and has been known to detect other forms of cancer outside the colon, such as pancreatic cancer. Cash also noted WRNMMC is the largest medical center in the country that offers VC.

Additionally, patients can undergo an optical colonoscopy (OC), during which polyps can be removed if found during the procedure. Unlike the VC, sedation is required for the OC and involves no exposure to radiation. Both the VC and OC require a bowel cleansing preparation, and while the VC can be completed in about 10-15 minutes, the OC takes a total of about 45 minutes, including the sedation.

To determine which procedure is most suitable for a patient, depending on family history or whether they're experiencing symptoms, each patient completes a questionnaire before screening, Cash said. Often, patients don't begin to experience symptoms such as abdominal pain, uninitiated weight loss or rectal bleeding until they're in the advanced stages of cancer. Therefore, as the third most common cancer in the U.S., he said, early detection is highly important. Even though the screening process can be somewhat unpleasant, these high quality tests can identify the polyps, and halt the progression to cancer, he said.

“It's a day of unpleasantness, but a lifetime of reassurance,” he said.

Men and women alike are at risk for colorectal cancer, he said, and for most people, the risk is greater at age 50, and 45 for African Americans. Those who have a family history parent or sibling with polyps or colon cancer should begin screening earlier, by age 40.

At Walter Reed Bethesda, Cash noted screening compliance is at about 75-80 percent, above the national average of about 55-60 percent. He attributes this to the options available, education, convenience, as well as their open access to care.

“We like to be as convenient as we possibly can,” he said.

He encourages those who haven't been screened to contact the GI clinic. Patients can either call for information, 301-319-8284, or go online to the GI's secure site, https://www.bethesda.med.navy.mil/gi, where they can fill out a medical history form. A nurse scheduler will then call the patient to make them an appointment.