Colon cancer screening

Colon cancer is deadly, but it is one of the most preventable types of cancer if it is detected early enough.

As you grow older, it is common for growths (polyps) to appear in your colon. While these growths usually don’t hurt you, over the years they can sometimes lead to cancer.

With screening tests, your doctor can often find and remove these growths before they become a problem. Finding and treating these growths early can prevent the need for surgery. The tests can save your life. Your doctor can tell you about the different tests and how often you might need them.

Ask yourself

  • Are you over the age of 50?
  • Do you or someone in your family have a history of cancer?

If you answer yes to either of these questions, it’s time to ask your doctor which colon cancer screening that is right for you. Colon cancer screening tests are so important that Medicare now pays for the tests under Part B.

Why is screening for colorectal cancer important?

Each year, over 150,000 Americans develop cancer of the colon or rectum, which makes colorectal cancer the second most common form of cancer in the United States. Fortunately, if colorectal cancer is found early, there is a much greater chance that it can be cured.

How do you screen for colorectal cancer?

There are a number of tests that screen for colorectal cancer:

  • Fecal occult blood test (FOBT)
    A small amount of stool is placed on a special card. The physician then has the stool checked for blood, which can be a sign of cancer.
  • Sigmoidoscopy
    The doctor inspects the rectum and lower colon with a flexible, lighted tube. This procedure is usually done without sedation and lasts about 5 minutes.
  • Colonoscopy
    This procedure is similar to sigmoidoscopy, but the inside of the entire colon is examined and the instrument used is longer. Sedation is used to make patients comfortable. This test is ordered for people at high risk for colorectal cancer and takes 20 to 45 minutes.

Symptoms of polyps, cancer

There are very few symptoms of polyps. Polyps can sometimes cause rectal bleeding and anemia if they are large enough. However, the majority of polyps are completely silent and produce no symptoms at all.

Symptoms of colorectal cancer are often vague and commonly overlooked. Although none of the symptoms listed below is specific for colorectal cancer, a physician should evaluate any persistent symptom:

  • New onset diarrhea or constipation
  • New change in the shape and size of the stool
    Does the bowel movement look thin like a pencil?
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Feeling that the bowel doesn’t empty completely
  • Blood in the stool

The bottom line is that although colorectal cancer is a very common illness, it can be prevented. This topic must be discussed with your health care provider so that the appropriate screening regimen can be selected that is right for you.

If an abnormal growth is found during a sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy, it is removed or biopsied and checked for cancer cells.

Who needs to be concerned about colorectal cancer?

  • People 50 years of age and older are at routine risk for colorectal cancer. The following people are at increased risk for colorectal cancer:
  • People with ulcerative colitis
  • People with a personal or close family history of colorectal cancer (especially if the cancer started before age 50)
  • People who have had endometrial, ovarian, or breast cancer
  • People with a history of adenomatous polyps in the colon.

What can I do to prevent colorectal cancer?

Colorectal cancer is not yet preventable, but by having the recommended screening tests, you increase your chances of finding the cancer in its earliest stages, when it is most curable. Be sure to follow these screening schedules:

  • People at routine risk
    Starting at age 50, have an FOBT every year and/or a sigmoidoscopy every 3-5 years.
  • People at increased risk
    You may need to be screened earlier and more often. You may also be referred for a colonoscopy. Be sure to talk to your doctor for advice!