Too Many People Skip Important Colon Cancer Screenings
Although colorectal cancer remains the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States, many people can lower their risk by staying up to date with screening tests.
Joseph Frenkel, MD, FASCRS
If colon cancer is detected in its early stages, it is up to 90 percent curable, according to the National Cancer Institute. Despite the effectiveness of screening for colorectal cancer, many people forgo this important test.
Federal health authorities estimate that, if everyone who is 50 or older had regular colorectal screening tests, at least 60 percent of deaths from this cancer could be avoided.
“Like many other types of cancer, the earlier colorectal cancer is found, the more likely treatment will be successful,” said Dr. Joseph Frenkel, a board-certified colorectal surgeon with Bon Secours Surgical Specialists.
More than 135,000 people will be diagnosed with colon cancer this year, according to estimates from the Colon Cancer Alliance. Roughly 50,000 will die from the disease.
The symptoms of colorectal cancer are often unnoticeable in the early stages. Screenings, however, can often detect it. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends men and women begin screening at age 50. Screening may need to begin before age 50 if a person is considered at high risk or has symptoms. Other risk factors for colon cancer include having inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, colorectal polyps, and a personal or family history of colorectal cancer.
“Screening tests can find polyps so they can be removed before they become cancerous,” Frenkel said. “Catching colorectal cancer early is the key to successful treatment.”
Several types of screening tests are used to detect polyps or colorectal cancer. Patients should ask their health provider which screening test is appropriate for them.
- A fecal occult blood test, or FOBT, is a test used to check for blood in the stool. Sometimes cancers or polyps can bleed. A FOBT can detect small amounts of bleeding.
- A sigmoidoscopy is an examination of the rectum and lower colon — or sigmoid colon — using a lighted instrument called a sigmoidoscope. Doctors can check for polyps or cancer inside the rectum and lower third of the colon.
- A colonoscopy is similar to flexible sigmoidoscopy. During the procedure, a longer, thin flexible tube, which is lighted, checks for polyps or cancer inside the rectum and the entire colon. During this test, polyps and some cancers can be detected and removed.
Although nine out of 10 new cases of colon cancer occur in people 50 or older, the disease can strike at any age. In fact, colon cancer rates in adults 50 and older have been declining while incidence rates in young adults have been increasing for unknown reasons. This is why anyone having symptoms should be evaluated fully, Dr. Frenkel said.
“Everyone needs to educate themselves about the risks of this disease,” Frenkel said. “Colon cancer affects young people, too.”
The following symptoms, which can occur at any age, should be checked by a doctor:
- Rectal bleeding
- Weight loss for no known reason
- Weakness or fatigue
- Nausea or vomiting
- Diarrhea, constipation, or narrower stools than usual
- Bowel never feels empty
- Blood in the stool (bright red or very dark)
- Persistent cramps, gas, pain, or feeling full or bloated
People can also potentially lower their risk of colorectal cancer by making changes to their lifestyle. A lack of physical activity, eating few fruits and vegetables, a low-fiber and high-fat diet, being overweight, and drinking alcohol are considered lifestyle factors that may contribute to an increased risk.
Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Cancer Institute, Colon Cancer Alliance
For additional information about your own personal risks for colon cancer and when you should be screened, consult your primary care provider. Call 804-359-WELL or visit http://goodhelpdocs.com/ if you need help finding a healthcare provider.