Among cancers that affect both men and women, colorectal cancer – which is cancer of the colon or rectum – is the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 140,000 Americans are diagnosed each year. Unfortunately, because colon cancer is often not caught until it is in its later stages, more than one third die from the disease.
While those are scary numbers, it is important to remember that with screening and early detection, colon cancer is highly treatable. Make a point to learn more about the disease if you are at risk and the facts about screening. It could save your life!
What is colon cancer?
Colon cancer is a disease in which cancer cells form in the tissues of the colon or rectum, which are part of the large intestine. Most of the time, it begins with the growth of benign (non-cancerous) polyps. Over a period of time, these polyps can grow larger and become malignant, developing into a tumor. Because this process can take time, early detection and screening are important to identify the colon polyps before they develop into cancer. In fact, finding and removing polyps before they are found to be cancerous can actually help to prevent colon cancer.
Who is at risk?
The Colon Cancer Alliance (CCA) reports that more than 90 percent of colon cancers occur in people aged 50+, and 72 is the average age of diagnosis; however, incidence rates in adults younger than 50 years are on the rise. The CCA has also found that African-American men and women have a higher risk of developing colon cancer and a lower survival rate compared to Caucasians, Asians, Hispanics and Native Americans, partly because of disproportionate screening rates. The American Cancer Society (ACS) explains the correlation between a person’s diet, weight, exercise and colon cancer risk are some of the strongest for any type of cancer. A person’s risk for the disease also increases with smoking, heavy alcohol consumption, a personal history of chronic inflammatory bowel disease, and/or family history. As many as one in five people with colon cancer have other family members who have had it.
What are the symptoms?
According to the ACS, colon cancer may not immediately cause symptoms, but some important signs to look for are a change in bowel habits lasting more than a few days, rectal bleeding, blood in the stool, cramping or abdominal pain, unintended weight loss and/or weakness and fatigue. While many of these symptoms can also be linked to other conditions – infection, hemorrhoids or irritable bowel syndrome – consult your primary care doctor right away if you’re experiencing any combination of these issues.
What does a screening entail?
The most common screening methods for colorectal problems are: a high-sensitivity fecal occult blood testing (FOBT) to test your stool for blood; a flexible sigmoidoscopy where your doctor puts a short, thin, flexible, lighted tube into your rectum to check for polyps or cancer inside the rectum and lower third of the colon; and finally the colonoscopy, which is similar to a sigmoidoscopy, but examines the entire colon. The CDC recommends that starting at age 50, men and women at average risk for the disease should use one or more of these screening tests and should also schedule yearly general check-ups with their primary care doctor.
What are the screening guidelines?
Screenings are conducted as a precautionary method for individuals who don’t exhibit symptoms, to help detect any issues early, when the disease is most treatable. Screening tests also identify precancerous polyps, which can be removed before they turn into cancer.
It is important to remember that this disease is highly treatable and sometimes even preventable. If you think you or a loved one may be at risk, talk to your primary care doctor and determine the best plan for you.