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Colonoscopy detects, prevents cancer

By Lisa Gutierrez McClatchy-Tribune News Service

She couldn't tell her mom that something was wrong because it was way too embarrassing.

She didn't even like to walk down the toilet paper aisle at the grocery store.

So when Danielle Ripley-Burgess was in junior high school and began finding blood in the toilet after going to the bathroom, "I didn't say anything about it for a long, long time. I was mortified."

When she finally did, she and her mom, at first, did their own research on the Internet and figured that because Danielle was so young, the problem had to be something benign, like hemorrhoids.

Wrong.

Just a few weeks after her 17th birthday in 2001 she was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer, going from prom plans to hospital stays in the blink of an eye.

Today, at 30, she's a wife and mother running a marketing firm - Semicolon Communications, wink, wink - and doing what she can to get people talking about what she once feared.

Colorectal cancer is the second-most deadly cancer, but the majority of cases are preventable with the use of a common screening procedure called a colonoscopy.

Precancerous growths found during a colonoscopy - recommended every 10 years beginning at 50 - can be removed on the spot.

That's important because those growths, or polyps, can stick around in your colon for years and become full-blown cancer.

"This is the only situation in all of medicine where the test used to screen for a cancer is also the method for preventing that same cancer," said Larry Geier, a genetics oncologist at the University of Kansas Cancer Center and one of Ripley-Burgess' doctors.

And yet, people fear the colonoscopy. Statistics show that only half of Americans older than 50 have ever had one, or any other type of colorectal cancer screening process.

Only 10 percent of all people diagnosed with the disease are younger than 50.

What happened to Ripley-Burgess was rare. She was diagnosed with colon cancer at 17 and again at 25, when all but a foot of her large intestine had to be removed.

It was her bad luck to be, Geier put it, "genetically programmed" to develop colon cancer at such a young age.

She has a genetic trait known as Lynch syndrome, which affects about 1 in every 4 to 5 Americans and is largely underdiagnosed.

Ripley-Burgess has her own lessons to share, like this one: Don't substitute Internet research for a medical diagnosis.

"That's definitely a piece of my story as well as others," she said. "While it's good to be informed, don't skip going to the doctor because you Googled."

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