With 200 new colorectal cancer cases reported annually in the UAE, a lack of health literacy and cultural barriers are driving the frequent incidence of the disease. Colorectal cancer is the second most common cancer for men in the country and the third most common cancer affecting women. It mainly affects people over 40, and prevention through regular screening is cited as the most effective way to safeguard against it.
Colorectal cancer can grow in the body without any apparent symptoms. By the time the symptoms become obvious, cancer has usually progressed to quite a degree and may require a combination of surgical intervention and/ or chemotherapy. A Sheikh Shakhbout Medical City (SSMC) - commissioned survey found that 63 per cent of respondents cited the absence of any troubling symptoms as the number one reason they felt regular colorectal cancer screening was not needed, signalling a lack of health literacy in the region. For Emiratis, deterrents included the fear of pain, fear of finding a severe disease, and shame.
Dr. Aref Chehal, Consultant Oncologist at Sheikh Shakhbout Medical City, in partnership with Mayo Clinic, says a change in bowel habits, blood in the stool, abdominal pain or discomfort, ongoing fatigue, and unexplained weight loss may all signal the presence of colorectal cancer. “The typical starting point for colorectal cancer is the formation of small, benign polyps on the colon's lining. However, over time some of these polyps may develop into cancerous growths. To prevent this, a colonoscopy can be performed to identify and remove any polyps before they can become cancerous.”
In the UAE, colorectal cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer-related deaths. But it is also one of the easiest cancers to prevent when detected early, with cure rates as high as 95 per cent. Various screening methods can help detect this type of cancer, including colonoscopy and Fecal Immunochemical Test (FIT). “Colonoscopy is highly recommended for women and men every 10 years from age 40 as this is the age group where around 80 per cent of all colorectal cancers are found. A FIT test, which looks at stool samples, can be taken annually and is especially important for those with a family history of this type of cancer,” says Dr. Chehal.
The UAE-approved Artificial Intelligence-powered technology, GI Genius, is setting a new standard for early colorectal cancer detection. “The system has been shown to significantly improve visualisation during colonoscopies, which increases the accuracy of detecting pre-cancerous polyps in the colon. This leads to a 50 per cent reduction in the risk of death from colorectal cancer,” explains Dr. Chehal. Since April 2022, SSMC has used the GI Genius module to screen over 300 patients successfully.
The treatment options for colorectal cancer vary depending on factors such as the stage and location of the cancer and include various approaches such as surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, targeted drug therapy, and interventional procedures. From the full range of laparoscopic and robot-assisted colorectal procedures, which reduce pain, blood loss, and recovery time while helping patients preserve normal function and avoid colostomy bags to Ostomy Polypectomy Laparoscopic surgery, a partial colectomy, lymph node removal surgery, endoscopic mucosal resection, resection of metastasis, HIPEC (heated intra-peritoneal chemotherapy), adjuvant and palliative care, and many others, patients have many options at their disposal.
“However, prevention is better than cure. And the best way to safeguard yourself is to undergo regular check-ups and screenings if you are 40 or above. It is the only way to increase chances of early detection and the most effective way to increase survival rates,” he adds.