Newswise — While some enjoy the basketball madness, Heloisa Soares, MD, PhD, gets excited about March’s status as Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. “Colorectal cancer is one of the cancers that we can actually prevent,” she says. An awareness month, she says, helps to remind people to talk to their healthcare providers about screening colonoscopies.

Soares treats gastrointestinal cancers — cancers of the digestive system — and she is part of the Gastrointestinal Cancers team at The University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center. She says screening colonoscopies can find polyps, which are small growths that can evolve into cancer. Removing polyps from the colon and rectum can prevent cancer from taking hold: “And then [the patient] might never have to deal with cancer later.”

Most insurance policies cover screening colonoscopies. And, New Mexico offers programs to help those who are uninsured or underinsured get colorectal screening.

Even those already diagnosed with colorectal cancer can benefit greatly from the progress made in treatment. If the cancer remains confined to the colon or rectum, Soares says overall survival rates can run as high as 90 percent. “Even patients with more advanced disease can have very good survival rates,” she says, “and some can be cured.”

Knowing your risk for colorectal cancer can affect the timing of your screening. National guidelines recommend screening to begin at age 50. But for those with a family history or at higher risk, screening should begin at an earlier age. Soares says people can reduce their risk for colorectal cancer by exercising, eating a balanced diet and living a healthy lifestyle.

Cancers of the colon and rectum are the third most common cancer in men, after cancers of the lung and prostate. In women, colorectal cancers are also third most common, after breast and lung cancer. According to New Mexico Tumor Registry data, New Mexico mirrors the national rates for colorectal cancer, although some populations in the state have higher rates than others.

About the Gastrointestinal Team at UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center

The multidisciplinary Gastrointestinal Team at UNM Cancer Center includes:

Medical oncologists Heloisa Soares, MD, PhD; Jessica Belmonte, MD; Ursa Brown-Glaberman, MD; Vi Chiu, MD; and Ian Rabinowitz, MD;

Radiation oncologists Gregory Gan, MD, PhD; David Lee, MD, PhD; Ben Liem, MD; and William R. Thompson, MD;

Surgical oncologists Ashwani Rajput, MD, FACS; Bridget Fahy, MD, FACS; Itzhak Nir, MD; and Victor Phuoc, MD;

Oncology radiologist Steven Eberhardt, MD;

Physician assistants Darcy Cooke, PA-C; Steven Perez, PA-C; and Hector Stephenson, PA; and,

Nurse practitioner Suzanne Gagnon, CNP.

About the UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center

The University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center is the Official Cancer Center of New Mexico and the only National Cancer Institute-designated Cancer Center in a 500-mile radius. Its 125 board-certified oncology specialty physicians include cancer surgeons in every specialty (abdominal, thoracic, bone and soft tissue, neurosurgery, genitourinary, gynecology, and head and neck cancers), adult and pediatric hematologists/medical oncologists, gynecologic oncologists, and radiation oncologists. They, along with more than 600 other cancer healthcare professionals (nurses, pharmacists, nutritionists, navigators, psychologists and social workers), provided cancer care for nearly 60 percent of the adults and 70 percent of the children in New Mexico affected by cancer. They treated 11,928 patients in 92,551 ambulatory clinic visits in addition to in-patient hospitalizations at UNM Hospital. These patients came from every county in the State. More than 12 percent of these patients participated in cancer clinical trials testing new cancer treatments and 35 percent of patients participated in other clinical research studies, including tests of novel cancer prevention strategies and cancer genome sequencing. The 130 cancer research scientists affiliated with the UNMCCC were awarded almost $50 million in federal and private grants and contracts for cancer research projects and published 301 high quality publications. Promoting economic development, they filed more than 30 new patents in FY16, and since 2010, have launched 11 new biotechnology start-up companies. Scientists associated with the UNMCCC Cancer Control & Disparities have conducted more than 60 statewide community-based cancer education, prevention, screening, and behavioral intervention studies involving more than 10,000 New Mexicans. Finally, the physicians, scientists and staff have provided education and training experiences to more than 230 high school, undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral fellowship students in cancer research and cancer health care delivery. Learn more at