March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. Did you know that only 4 in 10 cases of colon cancer are diagnosed at early stages? This is in part due to low screening rates. At Deaconess, we continually work to increase awareness about the importance of colon cancer screening.
Colon Cancer Facts
The colon and rectum are the locations referred to when discussing colorectal cancer. Another name for the colon is the large intestine. Colon cancer is a very common cancer in both men and women. Our area of the U.S. has a higher than average rate of colon cancer. This is likely related to diet, smoking and other risk factors. Some cases of colon cancer are hereditary.
Colon cancer is serious. It’s the second leading cause of cancer-related death (when men & women are combined)—only behind lung cancer.
Early detection matters. If colon cancer is detected early (stages 0 or 1), then 9 out of 10 people will be successfully treated and go on with normal lives. But, when colon cancer is detected in late stages (when the cancer has spread elsewhere in the body), only 1 in 10 will live 5 years or more. Increasing screening rates in important, because only 4 in 10 people have their colon cancer detected in early stages.
Colon cancer screening is recommended for every average-risk adult at the age of 50 and above. For African Americans, colon cancer screening is recommended to start at age 45.
In addition, if you have a family history of colon cancer, you may need to be screened earlier. Talk with your doctor about recommended screening ages. It’s recommended by American Cancer Society that anyone who is healthy, with no symptoms of colon cancer, should have an initial screening colonoscopy at the age of 45. However, the American College of Gastroenterology recommends colon cancer screening at 50 years of age, and these are the guidelines that most insurance companies are currently following.
A colonoscopy is a procedure where a physician uses a scoping tool with a video camera to examine the inside of the colon. Most insurance companies cover this screening in full. Medications, the procedure, etc. are included in that coverage. Colonoscopy is considered the “gold standard” of colon cancer screenings because it is so effective. Also, if there are growths in the colon (called polyps) they can be removed. These polyps sometimes develop into colon cancer, so colonoscopy is able to help prevent the development of cancer.
There are simple take-home screening tests available that are (usually) fully covered by insurance.
The Facts About Colonoscopy
There are people who flat-out avoid getting a colonoscopy, because they’ve heard something they don’t like about the test. For some, they may feel embarrassed; for others, they may’ve heard that the preparation for the test is unpleasant. A first point to make is that the physician who will perform the procedure has done them thousands of times. He or she will not be focusing on anything about you except how your colon looks, and they’ll be respecting you for taking this step to protect your health. Aren’t a few minutes of “embarrassment” worth potentially saving your life?
Secondly, preparation for a colonoscopy involves cleaning out the colon. That means taking laxatives and limiting fluid/food so that the colon is empty for the test. It’s important that this is done completely so that the physician can get a clear view and complete the exam easily. The prep is, admittedly, not the most fun way to spend an evening at home. But for most people it’s done just once a decade or so.
Someone who recently had a colonoscopy said, “It’s way better than having a stomach bug, because it just involves going to the bathroom a lot, and you don’t feel bad—you’re not sick.” Colon prep is very manageable and just something you have to do.
Warning Signs and Symptoms of Colon Cancer
It’s best to be tested for colon cancer before ever having any symptoms. Symptoms often appear only after the cancer has grown or spread. Colon cancer found early—before there are symptoms—is often more successfully treated. Screening can even prevent some colon cancers by finding and removing pre-cancerous growths called polyps.
However, colon symptoms do occur, they can let you know you have a problem and should go to the doctor. If you have any of these problems, it's important to see your doctor right away:
- A change in bowel habits, such as diarrhea, constipation, or narrowing of the stool, that lasts for more than a few days
- A feeling that you need to have a bowel movement that is not relieved by doing so
- Rectal bleeding, dark stools, or blood in the stool
- Cramping or abdominal (belly) pain
- Weakness and fatigue
- Unintended weight loss
Colon Cancer is Typically Related to Lifestyle Factors
While not all cancers can be prevented, controlling certain risk factors can help reduce the risk of developing colon cancer.
- Smoking: We know that smoking increases the risk of many cancers, including colon. Don’t start, and if you already smoke, do everything you can to quit.
- Diet: Limit processed food in general, but particularly processed meats, red meats and fried foods.
- Overall, increasing your consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and other foods full of nutrients and fiber have been shown to reduce your risk of colon cancer.
- Activity: Move more! Spending less time on the couch and more time on your feet is a good thing. At least 30 minutes of activity 5 days per week is recommended for good health. And activity can be fun! Instead of going out to dinner and a movie, go bowling. Take up tennis with some friends instead of always meeting for lunch.
- Healthy weight: Better nutrition and increased/maintained physical activity can improve a person’s weight. Reducing excess body fat can help reduce your risk of colon—and other—cancers.
What You Need To Do
Talk to your doctor about screening. If you know someone over the age of 45, be sure to share this information with them as well.
For more information about Dr. Kodali and Deaconess Cancer Services, visit www.deaconess.com/cancer.