One simple procedure may add years to your life.
I recently performed a screening colonoscopy on a 51-year-old man who wasn’t experiencing any of the typical symptoms of colon cancer, but had been referred for the test by his primary care physician. I found and removed a large polyp from his colon that had a very small presence of cancer (less than 0.5 millimeter). If this polyp hadn’t been found early, it could have developed into a more aggressive form of cancer in a short amount of time. And, if the patient waited until the polyp was larger or he began experiencing symptoms, his choice of treatment options would’ve narrowed significantly.
In the case of colon cancer, appropriate screening can find the disease at an early, more treatable stage – and that can save your life. Using colonoscopy for colon cancer screening also can prevent cancer by enabling physicians to find polyps that are precancerous and remove them before they have a chance to become more aggressive.
Reading the Signs
While as I noted earlier not all colon cancer patients will experience symptoms, there are signs that raise a red flag. Talk to your doctor if you experience:
- Rectal bleeding
- Blood in your stool
- Cramping or abdominal pain
- Unexplained fatigue
- Unexplained weight loss
- A change in your bowel habits
If you suffer from inflammatory bowel disease or diabetes mellitus, you are at an increased risk of developing colon cancer.
Why Get Screened?
Regular screening for colon cancer is the single best way to protect yourself from the disease. It’s recommended that patients begin getting screened at age 50. Those with a strong family history of colorectal cancer may need to be screened at an earlier age. Talk to your doctor about appropriate timing.
The survival rate of colon cancer is based on the initial stage of diagnosis and the type of colon cancer. Survival for Stage I colon or rectal cancer is about 93 percent, according to the National Cancer Institute. Survival for Stage II is between 72 and 85 percent, and between 44 and 83 percent for Stage III. Clearly, the sooner it is detected, the higher your chances of survival.
No Butts About It: A New Screening Option
A number of studies have looked at the reasons why people don’t get screened. Fear, lack of information, lack of time and access to testing services lead the list. Healthcare professionals are exploring ways to improve the screening process and make it less unpleasant.
A new option is an at-home screening kit. A FDA-approved stool DNA test, it looks for certain gene changes that can be found in colon cancer and rectal cancer cells. For this test, patients use a kit at home to collect a stool sample and mail it to a lab. In addition to DNA changes, the test also checks for blood in the stool, which also can be a sign of cancer. If the test does discover cancer or pre-cancer changes, patients will need a colonoscopy to confirm the finding.
This type of test is only for those with an average risk for colon or rectal cancer. It isn’t appropriate for patients who have a personal history of pre-cancerous polyps, colon or rectal cancer, or other colon issues. Your doctor can determine if this screening method is appropriate for you and can help interpret your results if it is.
Traditional Colon Cancer Tests
There are several other, more traditional tests to screen for colorectal cancer, and some are better than others; your doctor can help guide you. Some detect cancer at an early stage and may decrease the number of deaths from the disease.
- Colonoscopy uses a flexible lighted tube with a small camera on the end to look at the entire length of the colon and rectum. If polyps are found, they can be removed during the test.
- Flexible sigmoidoscopy is similar to colonoscopy but looks at only part of the colon and rectum. If polyps are found, they may be removed during the test, or you may need to have a colonoscopy later.
- Double-contrast barium enema is a type of X-ray test that uses a liquid called barium to highlight areas of the colon. If polyps or suspicious areas are found, a follow-up colonoscopy will be necessary.
- Virtual colonoscopy, or CT colonography, scans the colon and rectum to capture detailed images that your doctor can use to identify polyps or cancer. If your doctor sees something suspicious, you’ll need to have a follow-up colonoscopy.
- Fecal occult blood tests and fecal immunochemical tests are used to find tiny amounts of blood in the stool, which can be a sign of cancer or large polyps. Stool collection happens at home, and a positive result will need to be followed up with a colonoscopy.
Early detecting truly can mean the difference between life and death. Let’s make 2018 the year that we resolve to get screened.
For more information or to schedule a colonoscopy at CentraState, call 866-CENTRA7.
Amy Tilara, MD, is board-certified in gastroenterology and internal medicine and is on staff at CentraState Medical Center. She can be reached by calling 866-CENTRA7.