Colorectal cancer screening can save lives

March 06, 2012

Consulting with doctor during regular screenings

An estimated 60 percent of colorectal cancer deaths could be prevented if men and women 50 and older were screened routinely. However, only 61 percent of this group get screened.

What is colorectal cancer?

Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer–related deaths in the United States. Colorectal cancer develops in the colon or rectum, usually as a small growth on the lining of the colon or rectum called a polyp. Because it can take several years for the polyp to develop into colorectal cancer, regular screening can, in many cases, prevent colorectal cancer altogether by finding and removing polyps before they become cancerous.

Don't wait for symptoms to take action - know your risk factors

The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends screening for colorectal cancer beginning at age 50 in most people. Chances of developing colorectal cancer increase a great deal after age 50. But if you are under 50, it is important to ask your doctor if you should begin getting tested earlier. Certain risk factors can place you at higher risk for developing colorectal cancer. Earlier testing or more frequent testing may be recommended due to the following risk factors:

  • Personal history — History of polyps or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), including ulcerative colitis and Chrohn's disease, increases your risk of developing colorectal cancer. As noted above, polyps can become cancerous and inflammation over a long period of time from IBD can cause the cells lining the colon and rectum to change into cancer.
  • Race — African Americans have the highest colorectal cancer incidence and mortality rates of all racial groups in the United States. American Indians and Alaska Natives are second followed by White, Asian/Pacific Islanders and Hispanics.
  • Family history of colon cancer or polyps — Cancers can "run in the family" because of inherited genes, shared environmental factors, or some combination of these. Approximately 20 percent of people who develop colorectal cancer have other family members who have been affected by the disease.
  • Inherited gene changes — The two most common inherited syndromes linked with colorectal cancers are familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) and hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC).

Get tested

Make an appointment to discuss the issue, or bring it up during your next visit. If you are 50 or older or at higher risk, ask your doctor about which colorectal cancer screening test is best for you. Some options recommended by The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) include:

  • Fecal occult blood test (FOBT) annually — Detects blood in the stool by placing a small sample of stool on a chemically treated card, pad, or wipe; then a chemical developer solution is put on top of the sample. If the card, pad, or cloth turns blue, there is blood in the stool.
  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years with FOBT every 3 years — Allows your doctor to view the rectum and the lower third of the colon through a scope.
  • Colonoscopy every 10 years — Allows your doctor to look at the interior lining of your large intestine (rectum and colon) through a thin, flexible viewing instrument called a colonoscope. During a colonoscopy, tissue samples can be collected (biopsy) and abnormal growths can be removed. Colonoscopy can also be used as a screening test to identify and remove pre-cancerous and cancerous growths in the colon or rectum (colorectal cancer).

Note: Before either a colonoscopy or a sigmoidoscopy, you will need to clean out your colon. Colon prep takes one to two days depending on which type of prep your doctor recommends. Some preps may be taken the evening before the test. For many people, the prep may be scarier than the actual test. Plan to stay home during your prep time since you will need to use the bathroom frequently. The colon prep causes loose, frequent stools and diarrhea so that your colon will be empty for the test.

Just remember: A little discomfort could save your life.

Can colorectal cancer be prevented?

Besides getting colorectal cancer screening as recommended, there are other steps you can take to lower your risk for colorectal cancer:

  • Increase your physical activity
  • Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grain foods and limit your intake of red meat
  • Stop smoking — tobacco use raises your risk for colon cancer

What are symptoms of colorectal cancer?

The American Cancer Society recommends screening for colorectal cancer beginning at age 50 in most people.

Change in bowel habits is a common symptom for colorectal cancer. Symptoms may include:

  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Feeling that your bowel does not empty completely
  • Blood (either bright red or very dark) in your stool
  • Stools that are narrower than usual
  • Frequently having gas pains or cramps, or feeling full or bloated
  • Weight loss with no known reason
  • Feeling very tired all the time
  • Nausea or vomiting

Most often, these symptoms are not due to cancer. Other health problems can also cause them. Talk to your doctor. Usually, early cancer does not cause pain, so it is important not to wait to feel pain before seeing a doctor. When colorectal cancer is detected early, it can have a 90 percent or better cure rate.

If you are 50 and older or have any risk factors for colorectal cancer or symptoms, talk to your doctor today. It could save your life. Spread the word!

You can also learn more by visiting the American Cancer Society website or signin in to MyHumana, scroll down to the Condition Centers located on the left side of the page, and select Cancer — Digestive

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