My hemorrhoids are killing me

Published 12:50 pm Thursday, March 26, 2015

Alright, it’s okay to chuckle at that headline. But in reality hemorrhoids CAN kill you!

What?  Are you serious?  Perhaps you always thought hemorrhoids were just a nuisance.

Well, read on for the rest of the story.

Hemorrhoids are dilated blood vessels located “externally” outside the rectum or “internally” just inside the rectum. They usually form due to increased pressure on the blood vessels caused by frequent straining, heavy lifting or even pregnancy. Typical symptoms of hemorrhoids might include discomfort, pressure, pain or bleeding. The blood is typically bright red and is often seen on the tissue or as drops in the water with stool passage.

Confused? So, how do hemorrhoids “kill” you?

The unfortunate truth is the many people attribute their rectal bleeding to “hemorrhoids” when it may be from something more serious like a colon or rectal cancer.  Just assuming that rectal bleeding is due to hemorrhoids can be a grave mistake. It’s an assumption that can have deadly consequences.

Frequently in my practice I see patients who reluctantly come in for evaluation because blood was seen or detected in their stool. These people have often dismissed their bleeding as incidental or due to their hemorrhoids.  They generally aren’t concerned. However, upon evaluation I many times will find them to have a colon or rectal cancer or a significant colon polyp located in the distal part of the large intestine.  These lesions can bleed in a manner just like hemorrhoids.  Left undetected this can be a cause for advancing colon cancer and eventual death. So in essence, the “hemorrhoid” can kill you.

I remember one patient in particular.  He was a neighbor and a university professor.  He had experienced rectal bleeding for years.  Being less than 50 years old, he always ignored the bleeding thinking he had hemorrhoids.  Unfortunately he died within a year of my diagnosing his large invasive rectal cancer. This was an extremely sad situation as his death would have been preventable with early evaluation and treatment.

This brings us to the topic of colon cancer awareness and prevention, a theme we promote each March.

Colon cancer is a killer.  Over 50,000 US deaths yearly occur as a result of advanced colon and rectal cancer.  The good news; most of these cancers can be prevented by early and routine screening practices.  In fact, colon cancer is one of the few truly preventable cancers.  Advances in surgical care and chemotherapy have further improved survival rates for those who do develop colon cancer.  Statistics show the incidence of and death rate from colon cancer is falling. We are making progress!

Remember these guidelines so that you or your loved ones don’t become one of these statistics:

Colon cancer screening can take many forms including evaluation of the stool, sigmoidoscopy, colonoscopy or various X ray procedures.  Colonoscopy is considered the “gold” standard for screening and allows for immediate treatment and removal of any polyps that are found on the exam.

Everyone (male and female) over the age of 50 should be screened and followed at routine intervals depending on individual risk factors.  Some guidelines suggest screening for African Americans to start at age 45.

Cancer screening may need to start earlier for individuals considered at high risk (family history of colon cancer at a young age, or with a history of a familial cancer syndrome).

If you have a personal history of colon cancer or colon polyps you may need more frequent colon evaluations (usually every 3-5 years).

Do not ignore “warning” symptoms of bleeding, persistent abdominal pain, notable changes in the stool pattern, unexplained weight loss or a new anemia… even if you are under the age of 50.

Most people have heard or read these guidelines before.  You know what needs to be done.

Note:  Insurance companies are obligated to provide coverage for colon cancer screening, some with no co-pay required.

Still not sure or have more questions?  Talk to your doctor or health care professional.

Don’t let your “hemorrhoid” kill you.

Thomas Ruffolo, MD is a gastroenterologist with Vidant Gastroenterology –Washington. He specializes in diagnostic and therapeutic endoscopy.