While it may not be the most comfortable topic for you to discuss with your physician, colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States, more lethal than breast or prostate cancer, and the third most diagnosed cancer in both men and women. Unlike other cancers where screening is aimed at early detection, colon cancer screening can actually prevent the cancer from ever occurring. This is done by detecting and removing pre-cancerous growths, and that is why screenings are so important.
Colorectal cancers most commonly begin as small polyps, which are detectable through regular cancer screenings. There are no early warning signs of colorectal cancer, and most people diagnosed with colorectal cancer do not have a family history or other risk factors other than their age. It is important to note that pre-cancerous polyps may be present for several years without symptoms, and almost all colon cancers develop in these polyps. Finding and removing these polyps greatly reduces the risk of colon cancer. If removing the polyps does not prevent the cancer from occurring in the first place, and it is detected early, surgery, radiation and/or chemotherapy can provide effective treatment.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommend that all individuals receive regular colorectal cancer screenings beginning at age 50. Common screening exams include:
- Fecal occult blood tests – noninvasive tests that examine a patient’s stool for hidden blood
- Colonoscopy – examines the entire colon using a long, thin, flexible tube with a tiny fiber-optic video camera and light at the end of it. Also allows polyps and abnormal tissue to be removed and biopsied.
- Sigmoidoscopy – allows physicians to view the interior walls of the rectum and lower colon using a flexible, lighted tube
- Virtual colonoscopy – produces images of the colon and rectum using special X-ray equipment and shows polyps and abnormalities
- Digital rectal exams – a lubricated, gloved finger is inserted into the rectum to examine for abnormalities
Risk factors associated with colorectal cancer include:
- Age – Individuals over the age of 50 are more likely to develop colorectal cancer.
- Genetics – African Americans are at the highest risk of developing colorectal cancer.
- Heredity – A history of colorectal cancer in your family puts you at higher risk.
- History of cancers – Those with a personal history of colorectal, ovarian or endometrial cancer or colon polyps are at higher risk.
Men and women over the age of 50, or those with a family history of cancer, are encouraged to receive their colorectal cancer screening annually. For more information, visit www.gbmc.org/gi.