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With March being national colorectal cancer awareness month, Harlingen Medical Center is helping to save the lives of Valley patients by offering colonoscopy screenings in Cameron County’s first gastrointestinal lab to be certified by the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy.

Colonoscopy screenings are recommended for men and women 50 years of age or older, in most cases, as a way to prevent one of the most common cancers, which is also one of the most preventable cancers.

During a colonoscopy screening, pre-cancerous polyps (growths of cells that form inside the colon, or large intestine) can be removed — before cancer develops and spreads throughout the body.

“March is an ideal time to highlight the importance of a colon cancer screening,” said Melanie Little, RN, Day Patient and Endoscopy Unit Manager at Harlingen Medical Center. “Screenings have helped us find and treat this disease before it becomes deadly.”

“This type of cancer is preventable and curable,” added Sherry Posadas, RN, BSN, Charge Nurse for the Endoscopy Lab at Harlingen Medical Center. “You can help save the lives of your loved ones by encouraging them to get a colonoscopy as recommended by their doctor.”

Regular screening starting at age 50 is crucial because, in most cases, colorectal cancers do not produce noticeable symptoms in its early stages, according to the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons.

According to the medical society, screening and early treatment could save an estimated 40,000 lives per year.

In 2012, 134,784 people in the United States were diagnosed with colorectal cancer – and 51,516 people died from the disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of death among cancers that affect both men and women, and 60 percent of it is preventable, according to the CDC,” Ms. Posadas added.

During a colonoscopy screening at Harlingen Medical Center, if the patient’s gastroenterologist sees any polyps are developing in the patient’s colon, the polyps can be removed right then and there, so the patient doesn’t have to come back for a second procedure.

The polyps which are removed are then sent to a pathologist to determine if they are pre-cancerous.

During the procedure, the physician uses a long flexible, lighted tube to look inside the walls of the colon and rectum. Patients must follow a clear-liquid diet and take special preparations to clear their bowels prior to having the test – many patients say this is the “worst part” of having a colonoscopy. Since anesthesia is available, many patients report little or no pain or discomfort during the procedure itself.

Symptoms of colorectal cancer may vary from one person to the other, according to the Colon Cancer Alliance. Symptoms may include:

  • A change in bowel habits, including diarrhea or constipation or a change in stool
  • Rectal bleeding, or finding blood in your stool
  • Persistent abdominal discomfort, such as cramps, gas, pain or feeling full or bloated
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Chronic fatigue

Harlingen Medical Center’s Gastrointestinal Laboratory received its award for quality and safety after following strict national guidelines and undergoing a rigorous examination by the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy. Ms. Posada said this required a team effort, which was led by Dr. Jason Phillips, Gastroenterologist and Medical Director for the Endoscopy Laboratory at Harlingen Medical Center.

According to the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy, its recognition program honors endoscopy units like the one at Harlingen Medical Center, which have “demonstrated a commitment to delivering quality and safety as reflected in their unit policies, credentialing, staff training and competency assessment, and quality improvement activities.”

For more information on colon cancer screening services at Harlingen Medical Center, please call 956-365-1848.