March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, so I’d like to take this opportunity to share some important and possibly life saving information about the screening and diagnosis of colon cancer.
Many people are unaware, but colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the United States. (Excluding skin cancers.)
Most colon cancer starts as a tiny growth in the inner wall of the colon – this is what we call a polyp. Most polyps are non-cancerous and unlikely to become cancer. However some, such as adenomatous polyps, are known to carry higher risk.
In the beginning, colon cancer often has no symptoms. When they do occur, symptoms can include:
- Rectal bleeding or blood in the stool
- A sensation that your bowel hasn’t emptied completely
- Change in bowel habits (diarrhea, constipation, or stool consistency)
- Abdominal pain, cramping, or bloating
- Unexplained weight loss
- Fatigue, weakness, or reduced energy level
- Unexplained anemia
Most colon cancers are sporadic – meaning there is no strong family history or known genetic cause. However, you may be at an even higher risk if there is a history of colon cancer in your family. Approximately 3-5% of colon cancers are due to a hereditary condition called Lynch Syndrome. If there is a strong history of colon, urinary tract, endometrial or ovarian cancer in your family, make sure to discuss this with your HCP to find out if you could be at risk for having Lynch Syndrome.
Other risk factors for colon cancer include the following:
- A diet high in red meats, especially when cooked at high temperatures or a diet high in processed meats (hot dogs, some lunch meats)
- Being overweight or obese
- Physical inactivity
- Moderate to heavy alcohol use
Colon cancer is one of the most treatable cancers, but only when detected early through screening. In general, people with an average risk should start their screenings at age 50, but some individuals may need to start sooner.
Although colonoscopy remains the best way to screen for colon cancer and is considered the “gold standard”, I always tell my patients that the best test is the test that gets done. If you’ve decided a colonoscopy isn’t in the cards for you, then I encourage you to discuss alternative screening methods with your provider – such as stool tests, flexible sigmoidoscopy and CT colonography (virtual colonoscopy).
Bottom line, early detection saves lives! So, talk to your HCP and make sure you’re doing all you can to lower your risk.