Happy almost spring, everyone! Hopefully, we will start to see some more sunshine soon 🙂
Did you know that March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month? Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of death from cancer that affects both men and women (behind lung cancer). The American Cancer Society predicts that there will be about 140,000 new cases of colorectal cancer in 2018.
The crazy thing is, many cases of colorectal cancer can be prevented with regular screening. Do you know if you are up to date with screening? Did you know that there are different tests you can do?
What is colorectal cancer?
Colorectal cancer (or colon cancer) is cancer that occurs in the colon or rectum. The colon is the large bowel or intestine, and the rectum connects the colon to the anus.
You may have heard of “colon polyps” which are abnormal growths in the colon. Over time, some polyps may turn into cancer which is why screening is so important. Screening tests, like a colonoscopy, can help detect and remove polyps before they become a problem.
What are the risk factors for colorectal cancer?
There are several risk factors for colon cancer, some of which you control and some you cannot. See them listed below:
- Age. More than 90% of colorectal cancer cases occur in people aged 50 and older.
- Family history gives you an increased risk of developing colon cancer. There are also certain genetic syndromes (for example Lynch syndrome) which are inherited disorders that makes one more susceptible to multiple types of cancer. Very interesting stuff!
- History of inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s or Ulcerative colitis. Note: irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is NOT an inflammatory bowel disease.
There are also the usual lifestyle risk factors such as being overweight, smoking, and heavy alcohol consumption. Nothing surprising there, right?
Also, interestingly, some of our risk for colorectal cancer involves what we eat. Research has linked consumption of red meats and processed meats (sorry bacon lovers!) with risk for colon cancer. A diet rich with fiber-containing whole grains, fruits, and vegetables likely decreases the risk. The jury is still out as to whether or not certain vitamins (calcium, vitamin D) decrease the risk for colorectal cancer.
What are the symptoms of colorectal cancer?
Early stages of colon cancer and colon polyps typically don’t produce any symptoms at all. That is why it is so important to keep up with regular screening.
If you do have symptoms, they might include:
- Blood in the stool
- Abdominal cramping or pain
- Unexplained weight loss
Pretty vague, no? Don’t let this sneak up on you.
How do I get screened for colorectal cancer?
Now, you are ready to undergo screening. Excellent!
In general, The United States Preventative Services Task Force recommends screening for colorectal cancer for all adults aged 50-75. Screening beyond age 75 is an individual decision that should take into account one’s overall health and history of regular screening.
There are a few different tests you can do. Here are a few examples:
- Stool testing. There are a few different tests that detect either blood or altered DNA in your stool. These are done either yearly or every couple of years.
- Flexible sigmoidoscopy. For this test, the doctor puts a thin tube to visualize only the rectum and lower third of the colon.
- CT colonography. This is a scan (like a CAT scan) to visualize the colon and produce digital pictures.
And let’s not forget the gold standard: colonoscopy!
Colonoscopy involves the insertion of a thin, flexible tube to visualize the rectum and the ENTIRE colon. During the test, the doctor can remove polyps and take samples for biopsy with an instrument. If you have a normal colonoscopy and are at average risk for colorectal cancer, a colonoscopy only needs to be done every 10 years.
The other tests above can be used for people with a low or average risk of colorectal cancer. However, if any are abnormal, then a follow-up colonoscopy is needed.
The thought of a colonoscopy doesn’t sound all that fun, I know. Who wants a tube stuck up their rear-end, not to mention the awful bowel prep?
Check out this video below to see what to expect during and after a colonoscopy (it’s animated, nothing graphic!)
Keep your colon happy
I hope that now you understand how important screening for colorectal cancer is and what your options are. If you are over the age of 50 and have been dragging your feet to get screened, make sure you talk with your provider as soon as possible. You will be happy that you finally did it!
Disclaimer: Information contained in this post should not be substituted for medical advice. Therefore, if you think you are having a problem, contact your own provider who knows your health history.