Excluding skin cancers, colorectal cancer—also known as bowel cancer, colon cancer or rectal cancer—is the third most common cancer diagnosed in men and women in the United States. But early screening measures can help stop cancer in its tracks.
“Through screening with colonoscopy, colon polyps are found early and removed before they develop into colorectal cancer,” says Nicholas J. Agresti, M.D., a board-certified gastroenterologist at Southeast Georgia Physician Associates-Gastroenterology, a strategic affiliate of Southeast Georgia Health System. “There is a 90 percent risk reduction of colorectal cancer following the procedure.”
For most people, age 50 is the recommended age to begin colorectal cancer screening; however, age 45 is the recommendation for African-Americans.
According to the American College of Gastroenterology, anyone with a family history of colorectal cancer is recommended to undergo a colonoscopy every five years, beginning 10 years before the age at diagnosis of the youngest affected relative or at age 40, whichever comes first.
“Colorectal cancer and precancerous polyps do not always present with symptoms, and that is why screenings are so important,” says Agresti. “Symptoms may include blood in the stool, persistent abdominal pain, anemia and unexplainable weight loss. If there is any blood in the stool, on toilet tissue, or in the toilet bowl, a colonoscopy should be performed as soon as possible.”
Although colonoscopies are the most common screening option, other options include:
• CT colonography (or virtual colonoscopy)
• Sigmoidoscopy, which is similar to a colonoscopy but is a partial exam that only covers the left side of the colon
• High-sensitivity guaiac fecal occult blood test (FOBT) or fecal immunochemical test (FIT)
• Stool DNA test (FIT-DNA)
Agresti and his colleagues at Southeast Georgia Physician Associates-Gastroenterology recommend colonoscopy screenings to people with high risk and others, depending on the situation.
“Rectal bleeding can be related to cancer or polyps or even hemorrhoids, but we never take a chance. We always perform a colonoscopy,” Agresti says.
In addition to screenings, Agresti recommends regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, and eating a well-balanced diet, rich in vegetables.
If colorectal cancer is detected, available treatment options are then discussed with a team of surgeons, an oncologist and a gastroenterologist.
Risk factors for colorectal cancer include family history of colorectal cancer or colon polyps, obesity, tobacco use and an inactive lifestyle. Although colon cancer rates are decreasing for Caucasians older than age 50, the rate has increased among young people and African-Americans.
Risk also increases with age. More than 90 percent of colorectal cancers occur in people age 50 and older, according to the Colon Cancer Alliance.
“If you think you may be at increased risk, speak to your primary care doctor or one of our gastroenterologists about when to begin screening and to determine how often to get tested,” recommends Agresti.