How Often Should I Get Screened for Colon Cancer?
Experts advise that patients get screened for colon cancer with a full colonoscopy procedure 1 time every 10 years after they turn 50 years old. The frequency of screening increases if you have a history of colon polyps (especially pre-cancerous, or adenomatous, polyps) or colorectal cancer in your family. Furthermore, African-American males are encouraged to get screened earlier, starting at age 45, since statistically they are more at risk. Your risk of being diagnosed with colon cancer also increases if you have already been diagnosed with another type of cancer, especially breast cancer in women.
What Causes Colon Cancer?
Colon cancer or colorectal cancer occurs when malignant cells grow uncontrollably and form tumors in a person’s colon or rectum. The American Cancer Society has reported that colorectal cancer is one of the most common reasons for death among cancer patients in the United States. Nevertheless, with regular screenings, it is not difficult to catch colon cancer early, before it has a chance to spread.
Colon cancer usually starts in the tissue lining a patient’s colon or rectum. A definite cause has not yet been pinned down, but the majority of colon cancer starts off as a polyp. Colon polyps are small bumps that grow along the colorectal wall. While most polyps are benign, they can transform into cancer if left unattended. During a colonoscopy procedure, polyps can usually be easily removed. Unfortunately, at this time there is no reliable way to tell if a polyp is pre-cancerous without first removing it and sending it to a pathologist for evaluation. Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, both forms of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), increase your risk of developing colorectal cancer significantly.
How Can I Prevent Colon Cancer?
Since colon cancer is so prevalent in Western societies, it is generally believed that a person’s diet has a lot to do with whether they will contract the disease. There is some research that suggests a high-fat diet puts you more at risk, but there hasn’t been sufficient evidence that supports the idea that replacing your fat intake with, for example, more fibers will necessarily drop the risk. Although the subject as a whole is still datable among researchers, patients who smoke and drink alcohol regularly also may be more likely to be diagnosed with colon cancer.
The best way to prevent colon cancer is to schedule regular colonoscopy screenings with your gastroenterologist (GI doctor). Also, notify a medical specialist immediately once you notice any combination of these symptoms: abdominal pain lower down your abdominal area, bloody stool, lumpiness or hard areas in your lower abdominal area, development of irregular bowel movements (i.e. diarrhea or constipation), unusually thin stool or unexplained drop in weight. Although these are mere indicators that a patient may have colon cancer—seeing a doctor will ensure that any disease or condition present is detected early for the best chance of effective treatment.
How is Colon Cancer Treated at its Various Stages?
The stages of colon cancer develop depending on how and where the initial cancerous cells spread throughout the body. Routine medical imaging tests such as x-ray and MRI are usually the main way to track these changes in a process referred to as staging.
- Stage 0—cancer resides only in the lining of the lower gastrointestinal (GI) tract.
- Stage 1—cancer has spread slightly deeper, into the colon’s inner layers.
- Stage 2—cancer has moved into the colon’s muscular wall.
- Stage 3—cancer has reached a patient’s lymph nodes (symptoms usually worsen at this point).
- Stage 4—cancer has moved to other bodily organs, such as the liver, kidneys or pancreas (the patient’s chance of survival decreased greatly at this point).
Depending on how far along cancer has progressed in your body you may need to rely on one or several different treatment options. The first is surgery, probably with procedures such as colectomy or colon resection, which are aimed at removing cancerous cells from the body. The second is chemotherapy, which kills the cancer cells throughout the body, but can be quite a debilitating experience for the patient. Lastly, radiation therapy is available in the most serious cases, in which entire sections of cancerous tissue needs to be eliminated altogether. Talk to your doctor about what is the best colon cancer treatment option for you.
Reviewed 12/29/2011 by David M. Nolan, M.D.
Diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine, 2011
Currently a Fellow of Gastroenterology, at UCI 2011-2014