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Gastroenterologist Theopolis Gilliam, Jr., M.D., speaks to the Lawrenceville Cancer Research & Resource Center about colorectal cancer for the “Dress in Blue Day” program last week.

The American Cancer Society, as part of the eradication effort, recently changed the recommended age when one should first have a colonoscopy from age 50 to 45. Emporia native and Gastroenterologist Theopolis Gilliam, Jr., M.D., last week explained the importance of the ongoing drive.

“Colorectal cancer is the fourth most common cancer of all,” he said. “Only lung, breast, and prostate are more common. Every year, about 135,000 people are diagnosed with it and 50,000 die from it. There are no early warning signs, but if you’re screened you can find precursors of it – little growths that are not cancer but can become cancer. If you’re screened and polyps are found early, they can be removed and prevent cancer. In fact, it’s one of the few that you can find precursors early and prevent it from occurring. The rate starts to increase between 45 and 50, so if you get screened during that time, it could almost be eliminated.”

Gilliam said that it’s particularly important for people in Southeastern Virginia to have early screening.

“There are three hot spots for colorectal cancer in the United States – the Mississippi Valley Region, the Ohio River Valley, and Southeastern Virginia - Us,” he explained. “Nobody knows why. But what we do know is that most often it’s detected about age 50. So it’s particularly important for this area that everyone have their colonoscopy beginning at age 45 – before it becomes cancer - to assure early detection.”

Gilliam said that while there many screens out on the market, the gold standard is the outpatient colonoscopy. Patients have the procedure and then go home.

He added that the other tests available, such as those advertised on TV, can be done by patients, but they are not infallible, and if any irregularities show up you will still have to have a colonoscopy.

“And they’re covered by insurance very well,” he said. “Katie Couric and her family campaigned through the Virginia Gastrointestional Society and the General Assembly to have colorectal screening coverage mandated for all insurance companies. Now it’s pretty much across the country. We’re very proud that Virginia was the first state that made it mandatory.”

Gilliam, who describes himself as “just a farm boy from Emporia” added, “my Mother died from colorectal cancer at 58 – much too early. So that’s something we don’t want to happen to other folks. If you find it early, it can be cured, generally without a lot of invasive things to be done. Find it late, the mortality rate is much higher. Stage four has maybe a 15 percent cure rate. Locally we still find cases every few weeks, and not everyone is old, either. The main thing is that screening saves lives. That’s the important thing. Early detection saves lives.”

Gilliam practices at Southside Physicians Network in Emporia and Petersburg. For information on his availability to speak to civic groups, schools, and church groups on the subject of Colorectal Cancer Prevention call (804) 765-6650.