If you're not up to speed on colorectal cancer, its risk factors and the importance of screening, grab a bowl of high-fiber cereal and take a few moments to read up on the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States.
The good news is that colorectal cancer can be caught early; in fact, in many instances, doctors can stop this disease before it even starts. The key to identifying precancerous polyps and early detection of colorectal cancer: screening.
"A colonoscopy is not only a screening tool for colon cancer but can also prevent the development of colon cancer down the road," says Maham Lodhi, MD, a gastroenterologist at Rush.
If you have a family history of colorectal cancer and polyps, you are at higher risk of experiencing the disease. The closer the relative is to you genetically, the more vigilant you should be with your screenings. Those with family history may need to be screened earlier than age 50 and more frequently.
Delaying your screening can make the need for surgery more likely. Also, delaying can reduce the chances for a cure. There can be a better than 90 percent chance for a cure if the cancer is caught early.
"The tragedy of dying from colon cancer is that people don’t have to," says Salina Lee, MD, gastroenterologist at Rush. "We know how to find it, treat it, cure it. We just have to find it early."
There are a number of screening methods for colorectal cancer, from the simple fecal occult blood test to the more involved colonoscopy. Once 50, a person at average risk (no family or personal history of the disease and no symptoms) should have a yearly fecal occult blood test.
This test checks three successive stool samples for "occult," or hidden, blood (blood that’s not detected with the naked eye). These simple tests have been shown to reduce cancer deaths by catching the cancer at an earlier and more easily treated stage.
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Another screening tool is the sigmoidoscopy. The sigmoidoscope is a flexible lighted tube that is used to examine the rectum and the lower part of the colon. The American Cancer Society recommends that you have this procedure once every five years once you hit 50.
A colonoscopy is similar to the sigmoidoscopy, except that a colonoscopy allows the doctor to see the entire colon. Abnormal growths (or polyps) can also be removed during this procedure. The polyps are then tested to see whether or not they are cancerous. The American Cancer Society recommends a colonoscopy once every 10 years for people 50 and older.
Beyond family history
While family history certainly puts you at higher risk for colorectal cancer, most colorectal cancer occurs in people with no family history of the disease. Other risk factors include the following:
- Age (more than 90 percent of cases occur in people who are 50 years of age or older)
- Having experienced inflammatory bowel disease (like ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease)
- Too much animal fat in your diet, especially from red meat
- Not enough fiber in your diet
- Lack of regular physical activity
Delaying your screening can make the need for surgery more likely ... and reduce the chances for a cure. There can be a better than 90 percent chance for a cure if the cancer is found early.
To help prevent colorectal cancer, experts recommend the following:
- Get screened regularly
- Exercise regularly and maintain a healthy weight
- Eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other high-fiber foods
- Don't smoke or drink excessively
So even though you can't choose the members of your family tree, you can take charge of your colon health by making smart choices.