What You Don’t Know About Colon Cancer Could Hurt You - AvMed

Early detection is key. Plus, four ways to lower your risk 

Mature Asian-American man picking apples.

Good news: Detecting colon cancer early on can make a big difference. Not so good news: Currently only one-third of people who should be screened have yet to do so.

That’s too bad, since colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in men and women in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). Every year approximately 1 in 22 American men and 1 in 24 women will be diagnosed with colon cancer. 

According to Philip S. Rosenberg of the National Cancer Institute, more education is needed. "We can take meaningful steps toward reducing harm from this disease by increasing awareness of colorectal cancer and encouraging individuals who experience potential symptoms to follow up with their doctors," Rosenberg says.

Here's what every adult needs to know to protect themselves.

Be Alert for These Red Flags
Colorectal cancer occurs in the colon or rectum and has few symptoms, many of which mimic stress or other diseases. Early warning signs to be on the lookout for include weight loss, abdomen pain, frequent or loose stools, and bloating. However, it's not until blood is visible in the stool that most people realize there's a larger problem.

Know You Have Screening Options
The American Cancer Society recently revised its screening recommendations and suggests that individuals at average risk begin screenings at age 45. The ACS recommends that people who have a higher than average risk of colon cancer because of family history or irritable bowel syndrome should start screenings before the age of 45. If you are in a higher risk group, the ACS recommends only a colonoscopy for screening; those with average risk may use the non-invasive tests.

The goal of screenings is to alert doctors to polyps, which are abnormal growths that can turn into cancer, so they can be removed, before they turn into cancer. Regular screenings can help with early diagnosis, increasing the likelihood of survival. Discuss with your doctor which test is right for you.

Types of Screening Tests

  • Colonoscopy: The most common type of screening is a visual exam called a colonoscopy. The colon and rectum need to be emptied before the test, which is usually done with a laxative mixed with large amounts of liquid ingested the evening before the test. During the test, a small flexible tube with a camera at the end is inserted into the colon via the rectum to examine the full length of the colon.

  • Stool DNA test (also known as a multitargeted stool DNA test, or MT-sDNA): A noninvasive test which looks for altered DNA and/or blood in the stool No prep is required; you collect a bowel movement and send it to the lab. If abnormalities are found, a colonoscopy is recommended.

  • Fecal occult blood test (FOBT) and fecal immunochemical test (FIT): FOBT and FIT are noninvasive types of screening that test for blood in the stool, which can be a sign of polyps or cancer. The tests require no prep, but some foods or drugs can affect the results of FOBT; discuss dietary restrictions with your doctor. If the test finds blood in the stool, you will be offered more tests, such as a colonoscopy, to determine the cause of the bleeding.

Understand Diagnosis and Treatment
If any of the tests described above do discover cancer cells, you will likely have further tests to see if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. Surgery is almost always recommended to remove the cancerous growths within the colon. Chemotherapy, if needed, can be administered either before or after surgery depending on how far the cancer has spread, according to the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons.

Take Steps to Lower Your Risk
There are several ways to prevent colon cancer, according to the ACS.

  • Be physically active. Aim for 30 minutes or more of moderate exercise each day. This will help you maintain a healthy weight, which keeps many diseases, including cancer, at bay.

  • Don't smoke. Smoking raises the risk of numerous cancers as well as heart disease, stroke and emphysema. It should be avoided entirely.

  • Drink in moderation. While heart healthy in moderation, drinking increases cancer risk.

  • Women should limit themselves to one drink per day. Men can have two.

  • Watch your diet. Doctors recommend a low-fat, high-fiber diet. They encourage individuals to avoid red or processed meats. Taking a multivitamin can help you get enough calcium and vitamin D, which may also protect against colon cancer.