March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness month. Like most diseases, prevention and early detection are key in stopping cancer before it progresses. Colon cancer can be hard to detect, which makes it one of the most deadly types of cancer. There may not be any warning signs at all, or they may be overlooked.
Checking for cancer (or conditions that may lead to cancer) in people who have no symptoms is called screening. Adults over the age of 50 are the most at-risk for this type of cancer and should be screened regularly. People with higher than normal risk may be advised to begin screening at an earlier age. Catching cancer early on will give you the best fighting chance.
A colonoscopy is the most common – and often most dreaded– colon cancer screening but there are other ways health care providers use to find cancer. Talk with your provider about which of the following tests are right for you.
A colonoscopy is an exam of the entire large intestine (colon) that can detect polyps (growths), ulcers or other abnormal tissue. The test uses a long bendable, lighted scope which is linked to a video monitor. Doctors are able to detect and remove polyps during the test. It is the only cancer screening method that includes detection and primary prevention. It is the only test that is appropriate for someone at higher than normal risk of colon cancer.
Despite what people may think, a colonoscopy is not painful. Your doctor can give you medicine so you will not be awake during the procedure and you will have no memory of it. Doctors recommend getting a colonoscopy once every 10 years if you have an average risk of colon cancer. Certain conditions (such as precancerous polyps or a family history of colon cancer) make the risk of colon cancer higher and a colonoscopy would be recommended more frequently.
A sigmoidoscopy is an exam of the lower part of the large intestine. Like a colonoscopy, it uses a bendable, lighted tube but only examines the rectum and the lower part of the colon. Doctors cannot remove polyps during this procedure. Doctors recommend getting a sigmoidoscopy every 5 years.
A stool test looks for small amounts of blood in your stool. It is called a fecal occult blood test (FOBT) and is appropriate for people with an average risk for colon cancer. Your health care provider will give you a test kit for you to collect a sample at home. You return the test kit to your provider or lab, where the stool samples are checked for the presence of blood. This type of screening must be repeated every year. If blood is detected, then a colonoscopy is usually recommended.
Risk factors for certain types of cancer depend on your age and family history. Cancer treatments work well when the disease is found early, so it’s important to get screened regularly, even if you are not at risk.