Colon Cancer Awareness: What You Should Know About Screenings and Prevention
Over the past two years, many people have postponed regular health screenings because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the importance of colon cancer screenings can't be overstated.
Colon cancer is becoming more common because of increasingly sedentary lifestyles and low-fiber, high-fat diets. In fact, the American Cancer Society predicts that more than 106,000 Americans will develop colon cancer in 2022.
Early detection of colon cancer is important. Colon cancer screenings can help save lives through early detection. The most common type of colon cancer screening is a colonoscopy. But what is a colonoscopy? And when should you get one?
Get answers to these questions and more below, and if you're due for a screening, don't wait – reach out to your health care provider. It could save your life.
When should you get a colonoscopy?
The American Cancer Society recommends that colon cancer screenings begin at age 45, but if you have symptoms or other risk factors, your doctor may recommend that you get a colonoscopy at an earlier age.
Other risk factors for colon cancer include:
- Being of African-American descent
- Inflammatory intestinal conditions such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease
- Family history
- Heavy alcohol use
Colon cancer is so dangerous because most people feel no symptoms in the early stages of the disease. That is why a colonoscopy is so important - it can detect cancer before you experience symptoms.
What are the symptoms of colon cancer?
Signs and symptoms of colon cancer may include:
- A noticeable change in bowel habits and stool consistency lasting for more than four weeks.
- Rectal bleeding or blood in stool.
- Persistent abdominal discomfort – cramps, gas or pain.
- The sensation that your bowel never completely empties.
- Weakness, fatigue.
- Unexplained weight loss.
Early detection and diagnosis are the key, and a colonoscopy is the best way screen for the disease.
What is a colonoscopy?
During a colonoscopy, a doctor uses a tiny camera attached to a small flexible tube to detect any abnormalities in the colon and the rectum. If any polyps are found, they can be immediately removed.
A colonoscopy typically takes 30-60 minutes, with a day in advance to prepare your large intestine for the exam. During a colonoscopy, the patient is sedated and typically remembers nothing when it is over.
After the exam, the doctor will review the results of the colonoscopy and share that information with you. Your doctor will then recommend that you have another colonoscopy:
- In 10 years if you have no colon cancer risks other than your age.
- In 1-10 years if you have a history of polyps from a previous procedure - the timing depends on the number and size of the polyps previously found.
Let’s be honest. It might feel a little embarrassing to talk to your doctor about a colonoscopy. But feeling embarrassed could prevent important conversations between you and your health care provider about your symptoms or the need for regular exams.
Remember: Colonoscopies are not nearly as embarrassing or uncomfortable as you may imagine. And colon cancer screenings are too important not to do. Your life may depend on it.
How can you reduce your risk for colon cancer?
Lifestyle changes can reduce your risk of colon cancer. There are steps you can take in your everyday life:
- Eat a variety of fruits, vegetable and whole grains.
- Use alcohol in moderation, if at all.
- Don’t smoke.
- Exercise for 30 minutes a day.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Get screenings when recommended by your health care provider.
If you have questions about your risk for colon cancer and when you should get screened, reach out to your health care provider for expert advice.
About the Author
Darren Wohl, MD, practices gastroenterology and hepatology at Alamance Gastroenterology.