Family Health: Stop colon cancer in its tracks

Based on the statistics, it is likely that colon cancer has impacted you or a loved one. In fact, colorectal cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the United States and the second leading cause of death from cancer.The good news is that when it is detected in the earliest stages, treatment for colon cancer is very effective.

The best way to prevent colorectal cancer is to get screened regularly starting at age 50. There are often no signs or symptoms of colorectal cancer – that’s why it’s so important to get screened. People over age 50 have the highest risk of colorectal cancer. You may also be at higher risk if you are African American, if you smoke, or if have a family history of this type of cancer.

Colon cancer forms in the lining of the large intestine. Cancer can also occur in the lining of the rectum and together these are known as colorectal cancer. This type of cancer almost always starts as a polyp – a small, harmless growth in the wall of the colon or rectum.

As polyps get bigger they can become cancerous. That is why screening for colorectal cancer is so important – if polyps are found early they can be removed right away and prevent cancer. Screening can also find early cancers when they are easier to treat and survival is high.

There are several screening tests for colorectal cancer, and you can decide with your doctor what is right for you. You may have one or more of these:

  • Fecal occult blood test, or FOBT. This checks for blood in your stool. You will get a test kit to collect a stool sample at home and return it to your doctor or to a lab for testing. If it shows blood, you will have another test to look for the source of the blood.
  • Stool DNA test. This also uses a home kit to collect a stool sample. It is then tested for specific cells that are shed by colon cancers or precancerous polyps.
  • Colonoscopy. This procedure uses a thin, flexible tube with a tiny video camera at the end to examine the inside of you colon and rectum. If the doctor finds a polyp, he or she can remove it during your colonoscopy. You will have medicine to make you relaxed and sleepy, and you most likely will not remember the procedure.
  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy. This is similar to a colonoscopy except that the instrument only extends through the rectum and the closest part of the colon, known as the sigmoid colon. Polyps can also be removed during this procedure, but you will probably need a colonoscopy to check for problems in the rest of your colon.

After you decide which test is right for you, your doctor will let you know how often you should be screened for colorectal cancer. People with higher than average risks for this disease should start earlier and be screened more frequently. That includes those with a close relative who has had polyps or colorectal cancer. Having ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease also raises your risks. After you have your first screening test, you may be screened more often based on the results and your doctor’s recommendations. Additionally,if you have symptoms of colorectal cancer, such as blood in your stool, an unexplained change in your bowel habits (diarrhea or constipation) or unexplained weight loss, you should see your doctor right away.

In addition to screening, you can take other healthy steps to help prevent colorectal cancer such as quitting smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke. Also, make sure you get plenty of physical activity and eat a healthy diet. These steps can prevent many diseases while also decreasing your risk of colon cancer.