Did you know that the second most deadly type of cancer — colorectal cancer — could be cured more than 90 percent of the time if it is caught early? Yet, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that only 37 percent of these cancers are diagnosed in time.
Ninety-three percent of colorectal cancer cases occur after age 50, and it’s true that the risk for this disease increases even more as you get older. But younger adults and even teenagers can get colorectal cancer too, and it’s estimated that 13,000 cases will be diagnosed in people under 50 years of age.
There are ways to decrease your risk of developing colorectal cancer, but the jury is still out regarding if, and to what extent, some of these measures really do reduce the risk of developing the disease. In fact, two recent studies showed that eating a diet high in fiber doesn’t appear to reduce colorectal cancer risk despite earlier reports — some people believe that these studies further underscore the need for regular screening.
Colorectal cancer is cancer that occurs in the colon or rectum or both. Many times it begins as a small growth, or polyp, that isn’t cancerous initially but may become cancerous later. It develops slowly, and may take five to 15 years to develop — this is why catching it early is so important. Even after symptoms develop it may still be cured. But once it spreads to other parts of the body, it becomes much more difficult to cure.
There are factors that increase the risk for developing colorectal cancer. In addition to age, having an immediate family member with colorectal cancer, or polyps diagnosed before age 65, also increases the likelihood of developing the disease. If you’ve had ovarian, endometrial or breast cancer, or a longstanding history of Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, you are also at increased risk for colorectal cancer.
The symptoms of colorectal cancer include:
- A persistent change in bowel habits, for instance constipation or diarrhea;
- Blood in the stool or bleeding from the rectum;
- Abdominal pain;
- Weight loss;
- Tiredness or anemia.
If you have risk factors for colorectal cancer or notice any of the symptoms of colorectal cancer, you should talk with your physician about being screened.
Screening involves testing for a disease in its early stages, before symptoms occur. Several tests are currently used to for screening, and the National Cancer Institute is studying these tests to determine how beneficial they are and to compare the benefits and risks of each test. Many factors must be considered when deciding when to test and how, so speak with your physician about whether or not you should be screened.
Here is an overview of screening tests.
The fecal occult blood test (FOBT) is a test that identifies hidden, or occult, blood in the stool. It’s a simple test that can be done at home and taken or sent to the physician’s office or lab for examination. The test involves placing a small stool sample on a special card; a solution is applied to the card in the lab that makes any blood visible. The fecal occult blood test actually checks for bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract, a symptom of colorectal cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, studies show that when this test is done every one or two years in people between 50 and 80 years of age, the number of deaths due to colorectal cancer is decreased.
Sigmoidoscopy is a test in which a thin, flexible lighted tube is used to examine the inside of the rectum and lower third of the colon (the sigmoid colon) for polyps, tumors or abnormal areas. The National Cancer Institute’s figures suggest that fewer deaths would occur from colorectal cancer if people had regular sigmoidoscopy screening after 50 years of age.
A colonoscopy is similar to a sigmoidoscopy but it examines more of the colon, enabling the doctor to identify colon polyps, and remove them as well. The National Cancer Institute has no information about the usefulness of this test as a screening tool for colorectal cancer –although many gastroenterologists believe that colonoscopy is a superior, albeit expensive, screening technique.
Another test a doctor or nurse might perform is a digital rectal examination. The doctor or nurse places a lubricated gloved finger into the rectum, feeling for lumps or abnormalities. According to the National Cancer Institute, current research doesn’t suggest that it is effective in decreasing the number of deaths from colorectal cancer.
(However, this test is useful to detect other problems, such as prostate enlargement or prostate cancer in men)
A barium enema is sometimes used to examine the tissues lining the colon.
It is currently recommended that people with average risk and no symptoms have regular colorectal cancer screenings beginning with fecal occult blood tests annually and flexible sigmoidoscopy every three to five years. People with higher risk should have a periodic colonoscopy. Please consult with your physician to decide what level of screening may be best for you.
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