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Every year nearly 150,000 Americans are diagnosed with colorectal cancer, and more than 50,000 die from it, making colorectal cancer the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. Colorectal cancer is unique in that it cannot only be treated, but in many instances prevented by the removal of pre-cancerous polyps, which can sometimes appear up to ten years before malignant cancerous growths appear. Even after a polyp has turned into invasive cancer, if the cancer is detected early, then it can be treated with a five year survival rate of 90%.
The problem, however, is that screening rates for at-risk patients are particularly low, with nearly one-third of adults not having colonoscopies flexible sigmoidoscopy, or tests for blood in the stool (the guaiac test) on the recommended timeframes. Compounding the problem, many primary care physicians and gastroenterologists fail to diagnose pre-cancerous or cancerous growths in the colon in a timely manner, because they dismiss many of the symptoms as ordinary conditions like indigestion or diarrhea.
The primary symptom of pre-cancerous polyps or colorectal cancer is rectal bleeding, and most patients who experience significant rectal bleeding not tied to an identifiable other cause like a hemorrhoid should be referred to some form of lower endoscopy like a colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy. In many instances, however, even if a patient does not have visible blood in the stool, they still may have other signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer like anemia and persistent abdominal pain, both of which should indicate to their physician the possibility of pre-cancerous polyps or invasive cancer and should prompt the physician to explore the possibility of colorectal cancer more seriously. Patients under the care of a gastroenterologist, like those with inflammatory bowel diseases, are at an even greater risk of colorectal cancer, and should be advised to follow-up with the appropriate screening whenever there is any indication of problems with the colon.
In many of the medical malpractice cases we see alleging that a doctor failed to diagnose and treat colorectal cancer in a timely manner, the patient exhibited symptoms like abdominal pain and diarrhea, but was never offered the possibility of doing even the non-invasive tests, such as an annual fecal occult blood test (FOBT), which would have shown the presence of blood in the stool and would have caused the patient to immediately seek a colonoscopy and potentially surgery to remove the growths.