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If you’ve walked past the Gold Valet Patient Information Desk, you know Margie Schwerdt.

She’s the self-proclaimed "Walmart greeter" - the outgoing redhead who knows all things Moffitt and offers a reassuring smile to everyone she sees.

Schwerdt has worked in patient relations for more than 15 years.

And she’s a cancer survivor.

The diagnosis came 20 years ago, after she ignored what she thought were minor symptoms.

"When they diagnosed me, I had stage IIIB, almost stage IV, colorectal cancer," Schwerdt said. "I was mortified."

She underwent surgery to remove part of her colon and create a colostomy. After she recovered, she began routine screening. She had another surgery two years later, when doctors found a tumor in her abdomen.

"Moffitt has saved my life in more ways than one," Schwerdt said.

She's been cancer free for two decades, but she still wonders if routine screening could have changed her outcome.

"That is the most important thing: screening," she said. "Had I gone, they could have nipped that cancer in the bud. I would have never had to go through that radical surgery."

Dr. Julian Sanchez

Dr. Julian Sanchez

March is colorectal cancer awareness month, so what better time to spread the word that colon cancer screening saves lives. Typically, small slow-growing polyps can develop in the colon or rectum, and if left unchecked, these precancerous growths can gradually cause cancer.

"Colorectal cancer is completely preventable," said Dr. Julian Sanchez, Moffitt colorectal surgeon. "If you get your colonoscopies on time — you take a polyp out before it has the chance to become a cancer — you never get cancer at all. Cancers that are caught in very early stage have excellent survival rates; we are talking 80 percent survival rates or more."

Doctors recommend individuals of average risk begin colon cancer screening at the age of 50. Talk to your doctor about your own risk and when screening is right for you.

Recommended colorectal cancer screening tests include:

  • Colonoscopy — The doctor will examine the colon looking for small growths or polyps, which can transform into cancer. The doctor can remove any small polyps found. It takes about 30 minutes and you will be asleep during the procedure. Plan to have someone with you to drive you home. Tip: Most people consider the bowel preparation the worst part. Strong laxatives and possibly an enema will clean out your colon.
  • Sigmoidoscopy — This is similar to a colonoscopy; however, the doctor only looks at part of the colon instead of the entire colon. As with a colonoscopy, polyps can be removed. Tip: Like the colonoscopy, preparation may involve a special diet, laxatives or enemas to clean the colon.
  • Fecal occult blood test — This test checks stool samples for occult (hidden) blood, which may indicate the presence of a bleeding tumor. If blood is detected in the sample, follow-up testing may be recommended. Tip: These tests do not require bowel preparation. However, the test does not detect all cancers.
  • Stool DNA test — This noninvasive test can find abnormalities that indicate cancer or polyps. Similar to a fecal occult blood test, this stool sample finds abnormalities that indicate cancer or polyps. Use a home-kit to collect a stool sample and mail it to the lab for analysis. If the test indicates cancer or pre-cancer, you will need further testing. Tip: Not everybody will meet the criteria for this type of colon screening test and some will still need to follow up with a colonoscopy.
  • Virtual colonoscopy — A radiologist will use X-ray equipment to examine the large intestine for cancer and polyps. A small tube is inserted a short distance into the rectum to inflate with air for clearer pictures. The procedure can show ulcers, polyps and cancer, but cannot remove polyps or treat other problems. A physician will review the images to check for signs of colorectal cancer and a follow-up colonoscopy may be indicated. Tip: While this does not require sedation, it may require bowel preparation.
  • Double-contrast barium enema — Barium sulfate (a chalky liquid that provides contrast for imaging) is placed in a patient’s colon through a small tube inserted through the rectum. The colon is then expanded with air pumped through the same tube. Next, X-ray images of the lining of the colon are taken. If polyps or other suspicious areas are noted, a follow-up colonoscopy may be recommended. Tip: This procedure requires bowel preparation.

Do you want more information on colorectal cancer screening? Join us at this year’s Colorectal Awareness Event in conjunction with the 2018 Men’s Health Forum on Saturday, March 17.

The event will be at the University of South Florida’s Marshall Student Center from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. It includes:

  • Free parking
  • Free breakfast and lunch
  • Health education and workshops in Spanish and English
  • Free wellness screenings, including blood pressure, vision, HIV, hepatitis and skin cancer screening
  • Prostate exam vouchers (for those who qualify)
  • Giant Inflatable Colon — take a stroll to see the organ from the inside out