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Health Break: Detecting colorectal cancer early: Signs and symptoms

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A podcast for UPMC Health Plan members, Health Break is your quick guide to caring for your mental and physical health, prioritizing wellness, and making the most of your health insurance plan.

Episode 5: Take a Health Break with Dr. Andrew Watson

Dr. Watson takes a Health Break to explain colorectal cancer, how it develops, and ways to detect signs and symptoms early.


Episode transcript:

Camille: Welcome to Health Break by UPMC Health Plan, your quick guide to health, wellness, and how to make the most of your health insurance plan. Listen during your coffee break, lunch break, or anytime you need a break. I’m your host, Dr. Camille Clarke-Smith. I help to oversee the quality of the plans we offer at UPMC Health Plan.

Alex: And I’m your co-host, Alex Treanor. I’m a senior health coach who works with our members on healthy lifestyle habits and goals. This is your… Health Break.

Camille: Hey! This is Dr. Camille Clarke-Smith. Today we’re joined by Dr. Andrew Watson to understand colorectal cancer, how it develops, and how we can detect signs and symptoms early on. Dr. Watson, thank you so much for being here.

Dr. Watson: It’s nice to be here. Thank you for asking me to join you.

Camille: What is colorectal cancer and how does it develop?

Dr. Watson: Colorectal cancer is a cancer found in the colon or the rectum. It can be referred to as either colon cancer or rectal cancer, depending on where it starts, but the signs and symptoms are very similar. The cancers can start on their own where a cell in your body becomes a cancerous cell and grows, or it can be genetically inherited—so it’s partly your genome, so to speak. And typically, it starts local in a small area. If it becomes a little bit larger, it can spread to the lymph nodes. If it’s a more advanced case, it actually can spread to the liver.

Camille: What are some of the signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer?

Dr. Watson: They can actually be specific and obvious, such as blood in your stool, but they can also be vague, such as nausea, bloating, abdominal pain. It’s not to say that every time you have any of these symptoms you definitely have colorectal cancer, but the more indicators and something you want to follow up with using your physician or a specialist.

Camille: So we know that screenings for breast cancer, prostate cancer, and colorectal cancer are important. Can you tell us about colorectal cancer screenings?

Dr. Watson: Colorectal cancer screening is as critical as the others that you mentioned. It’s so important. Knowing your family’s health and wellness is part of it, making sure there aren’t other cancers that actually come along with colon cancer. You can check for blood in the stool. Your physician can do that quite simply in the office. And also, regular and routine colonoscopies are absolutely critical. Those are a must. Colonoscopies are actually quite simple. The bowel prep has become a lot less uncomfortable, so to speak, and the procedure is quite simple. One of the good things about a routine colonoscopy is you can have very early detection of colorectal cancer and at times even remove it without needing anything more invasive. So colonoscopies are so important and actually quite easy to do.

Camille: Now, is there anything else that we can do to prevent colorectal cancer? Is it genetic?

Dr. Watson: Prevention is really about being aware of colorectal cancer and making sure you just take care of yourself, have a healthy lifestyle, and also look for some of the signs and symptoms we talked about earlier. And yes, it can be genetic. If you notice that multiple family members have cancer or one family member has a lot of cancers, it’s worth talking to your primary care physician about this because they can detect a genetic or inherited type of colorectal cancer.

Camille: Well thank you so much, Dr. Watson, for taking a Health Break with us today.

Dr. Watson: Happy to be here, have a wonderful day.

Camille: Talk to your doctor about when you should have your first or next colon cancer screening. Find show notes and more information at Join us as we explore other health and wellness topics in the next episode of Health Break.
This podcast is for informational and educational purposes. It is not medical care or advice. Individuals in need of medical care should consult their personal care provider. Views and opinions expressed by the hosts and guests are solely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of UPMC Health Plan and its employees.

Learn more about colorectal cancer screenings 

About Dr. Andrew Watson: 

A practicing surgeon in the Division of Colorectal Surgery, Dr. Watson is a leader in applying health care technology to the delivery of high-quality, patient-centered medicine. A fourth-generation surgeon and faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh, Dr. Watson practices nearly a third of his own clinical care using telemedicine to increase access and convenience for patients. He also plays a leading role in developing telemedicine strategy and technology across UPMC and is the past president of the American Telemedicine Association. Dr. Watson regularly comments on this topic on Twitter and can be followed @arwmd. 

Dr. Watson attended Trinity College and subsequently received his master’s degree at the University of Oxford. After receiving his medical degree from Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, he completed his surgical training and a fellowship in minimally invasive surgery at UPMC, where he specializes in colorectal and inflammatory bowel disease surgery. 

About Dr. Camille Clarke-Smith: 

Camille Clarke-Smith, EdD, is a program director in the Quality Improvement, Medicare Stars Department at UPMC Health Plan, where she leads the Medicare Faith and Wellness Program, a 3- to 12-week health and wellness challenge. She is also the founder of the nonprofit Transforming the Health of African American Women (THAW) Inc. She earned a doctorate in health and physical activity education from the University of Pittsburgh in addition to a master’s in exercise science and a bachelor’s in psychology and sociology. She is currently pursuing her master’s degree in social work at Carlow University.  

About Alex Treanor: 

Alex Treanor is a lead health coach at UPMC Health Plan. As a lifestyle health coach, she specializes in helping you lose weight, eat healthy, get more physical activity, be less stressed, and quit tobacco. Alex has a master’s in Kinesiology, Integrative Wellness from Point Loma Nazarene University. She has been coaching since 2014 and is a Nationally Board Certified Health & Wellness Coach and Certified Personal Trainer. Alex is passionate about helping people improve their relationship with food and exercise while creating healthy, sustainable routines filled with enjoyment. Alex enjoys spending time with her husband, walking with her dog, and eating tacos in the sunshine.