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Medical Intel

Mar 26, 2019

Colorectal cancer is expected to affect about 146,000 Americans in 2019. Dr. Jennifer Ayscue discusses the advanced techniques we use to diagnose and treat this disease.



Intro: MedStar Washington Hospital Center presents Medical Intel where our healthcare team shares health and wellness insights and gives you the inside story on advances in medicine.

Host: We’re speaking with Dr. Jennifer Ayscue, section director of colorectal surgery at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. Thank you for joining us today, Dr. Asycue.

Dr. Ayscue: Thank you so much for having me.

Host: We’re discussing colorectal cancer and the minimally invasive techniques now used for the procedure. Dr. Asycue, could you start by discussing what colorectal cancer is?

Dr. Ayscue: So, colorectal cancer is a cancer of the large bowel or large intestine, which includes the colon, whose job is mainly to absorb water, among other things, and the rectum, which holds stool until it’s ready to be expelled. Cancer occurs when the inner lining of the colon or rectum develops abnormal cells which have the ability to then invade through the bowel wall and even spread to other parts of the body, like the lungs or the liver.

Host: Recent studies have suggested that colorectal cancer has increased in young adults. Could you explain why this is, plus other groups of people who are most susceptible?

Dr. Ayscue: Yeah, we’ve been patting ourselves on the back because for a number of years we’ve been noticing that the rates of colorectal cancer have been decreasing and this is, we think, in large part due to widespread colorectal cancer screening. However, unfortunately, as we’ve taken a closer look, we’ve found that the number of cancers diagnosed in young people, even in their 20s or 30s or 40s, has actually been rising and now they actually have a higher risk of colorectal cancer, in some cases, than people over the age of 50. We’re not really sure the reason of this but it may have something to do with increasing rates of obesity, sedentary lifestyle, drinking more alcohol - especially in men, smoking, eating processed food or red meats, and all of these really increase our risk for getting colorectal cancer. Or it could just be some other environmental factor that we have yet to figure out.

Host: Are there symptoms people can experience with colorectal cancer?

Dr. Ayscue: The most common signs or symptoms that I see are people who have rectal bleeding or urgency, meaning they need to get to the bathroom quickly but even after they use the restroom, they still feel this urgency. They may also have some mucous, maybe even mixed with the blood that we talked about before. They may have a persistent change in their bowel habits, which usually lasts for more than a few days or weeks. They may have abdominal pain or rectal pain. So, these are pretty non-specific and don’t always result in a diagnosis of colorectal cancer but should raise suspicion.

Host: In what ways do you typically diagnose colorectal cancer?

Dr. Ayscue: So, we offer many options. And some of the less invasive options for colorectal cancer screening include tests that may just test for blood in our home tests. Unfortunately, these do require some dietary restrictions and multiple stool samples, but it’s a cheap test and it’s only performed on a yearly basis. The ability for that to detect polyps and some cancers using that method are just limited. Another more sensitive test is called the fecal immunochemical test, or the FIT test, as it’s more widely known. This test tests for blood products as well, but it’s more sensitive and detects blood that definitely comes from the rectum and colon. It’s not great for smaller polyps but it’s a little more expensive than the guaiac test but not overly expensive so that it’s able to be used by a pretty large population. It’s offered for free, actually, through our community program for patients who qualify in certain wards in DC. And it’s usually covered by insurance for those who do have insurance. The last fecal test is fecal DNA test which may also test for blood but like the FIT test, and it’s very good, but it also tests for the fecal DNA which makes it more sensitive and is able to find over 90% of colorectal cancer and more polyps than the FIT test can. It’s only required every 3 years instead of yearly like the other two. However, it is more expensive and can be a limitation if someone is uninsured or if the insurance doesn’t cover it.

Another option is to perform a CT colonography or what’s known as a virtual colonoscopy. This is recommended every 5 years and up to 94% of larger polyps and cancers can be found with this. But it generally requires a bowel prep, similar to colonoscopy, and no biopsy can be formed at the same time. Also, other findings on CT may prompt further workup on those findings - sometimes, unnecessarily. So, I should also mention that if any of these minimally invasive tests are positive, then that person has to proceed on to colonoscopy, where the colon can be evaluated and either lesions biopsied or even removed, if anything’s found. Unfortunately, sometimes these tests can be positive and then no lesion is found on colonoscopy, and this is pretty stressful and frustrating for the patient.

Host: Could you discuss some of the minimally invasive techniques your team uses to treat colorectal cancer?

Dr. Ayscue: We offer a range of colorectal cancer treatments that are minimally invasive, but probably the most common would be the laparoscopic route. And, that would be when a colon cancer or a rectal cancer has to be removed. This is usually in conjunction with, sometimes, radiation or chemotherapy. So then, we can remove it either laparoscopically where we place instruments through very small incisions into the abdomen and then remove the colon through a relatively small incision as well. We can also use robotic techniques where the small incisions are also used but these instruments are connected to robotic arms which are controlled by the surgeon who is in the room at the same time but also allows us to have more fine control of the instruments and get in to spaces that we might not otherwise be able to get in to so that we can remove cancers more efficiently and with less post-operative pain and sometimes better outcomes overall.

Host: Can you discuss the importance of why getting screened early can help your treatment?

Dr. Ayscue: So, the newer recommendations are actually to get screened at 45, whereas it used to be 50 years old, because of patients having a higher risk of colorectal cancer in younger ages. If we’re able to get to people early and get them screened, meaning that they don’t really have any symptoms of colorectal cancer and we’re just looking to see if they have anything like a polyp or an early cancer, then we think by treating the polyp and removing the polyp that we can help prevent that polyp from becoming a cancer, which will hopefully decrease the risk of them ever getting a cancer. If we do find a cancer and it’s in an early stage, it’s much more curable.

Host: What does recovery typically consist of after surgery?

Dr. Ayscue: Well, most patients are in the hospital for anywhere from 1 to 4 days after surgery and most patients are treated with a very specialized program to help avoid narcotic usage and uses a lot of non-narcotic medications. And, with the combination of the minimally invasive surgery and this protocol, we’re able to get patients on their feet very quickly, eating diets within a day of surgery and home, usually, within the 1-4 days with minimal pain medications when they go home.

Host: How do the minimally invasive treatment and diagnostic techniques today compared to techniques used 10, 20, 30 years ago?

Dr. Ayscue: Well, the diagnostic techniques are getting better and better with each year and are able to diagnose now smaller lesions at earlier stages than they have in the past. And I suspect that they’ll become the primary tests of the future with colonoscopy reserved only for positive results in all patients, even high-risk patients. As for the treatment techniques, some of these didn’t even exist or were in the very early research stages 30 years ago, and have become better and better each year and...I suspect that laparoscopic and robotic techniques will merge and we will basically have robotic techniques that allow us to do almost anything in the abdomen without the need for an open incision.

Host: Could you share a story of a patient who had a successful outcome with minimally invasive surgery at MedStar Washington Hospital Center?

Dr. Ayscue: I had a mid-50s female who hadn’t been screened yet and she decided to get a FIT test and it came back positive. She saw me, and we did a colonoscopy at that time. And, I found a large polyp which I couldn’t remove using the colonoscope and I found several other polyps that actually could be removed. She then needed to have a robotic-assisted colon and rectal resection. And, I’m happy to say her pathology revealed a benign polyp which had some pre-cancerous cells. She was cured by that surgery and will just get regular surveillance to avoid needing any surgery in the future. But, if she’d waited another year or two, she might have had a cancer that would have required more treatment. So, we were very happy with this outcome.

Host: Why is MedStar Washington Hospital Center the best place to seek care for colorectal cancer?

Dr. Ayscue: So, our hospital has a significant focus on colorectal cancer, and this starts with the robust screening program that we have, with a nurse navigator who can help patients get the right screening for them and assist with any concerns. We also have a really strong team of gastroenterologists, surgeons, radiologists, and, if needed, cancer treatment doctors who are all very dedicated to the prevention and treatment of colorectal cancer. We definitely have the newest technology and we’re in the process of getting accreditation as one of the first hospitals in the nation for a multidisciplinary treatment of cancer.

Host: Thanks for joining us today, Dr. Ayscue.

Dr. Ayscue: Thank you for having me.

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