Colon cancer is the third most common cancer in the country. According to the American Cancer Society, nearly 100,000 new cases of colon cancer are diagnosed in the United States every year and more than 50,000 Americans die annually because of it. Thanks to the excellent screening tools available (e.g. colonoscopy), this number has been decreasing.
It is hard to notice signs and symptoms of colon cancer in its early stages. By the time they appear, the disease has progressed and is more difficult and challenging to treat. Signs and symptoms that you may experience as colon cancer progresses include:
- blood (bright or dark red) in, or on, your stools or bowel motions;
- changes in your normal bowel habit (e.g. diarrhea or constipation) with no apparent reason, lasting for more than three weeks;
- unexplained weight loss;
- pain in your abdominal area or back passage;
- feeling that you haven’t emptied your bowel properly after a bowel motion; and
- unexplained tiredness.
The exact causes of mutations occurring in the cells in the lining of the colon which leads to colon cancer are still unknown. However, medical professionals are discovering certain risk factors for colon cancer which include unhealthy lifestyle habits such as:
- eating lots of red meat and meat cooked at high temperatures by frying or grilling;
- drinking excess amounts of alcohol; and
- Getting little exercise and being overweight.
Being diagnosed with colon cancer can be overwhelming. However, becoming better informed about colon cancer can help you to take better control of your health. It’s important to consider your lifestyle and diet to help prevent colon cancer. Regular screenings can also help stop the spread of cancer by finding it early when it’s smaller, easier to treat, and more likely to be curable. The American Cancer Society lists the following screenings and tests that help diagnose colon cancer:
- 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 may be removed during the test. To prepare for the test, you may be asked to follow a special diet for a day or two before the test. You will also need to clean out your colon with strong laxatives (called a bowel prep) and sometimes with enemas, as well. Most people are sedated during the test. If nothing is found during the test, you won’t need another one for 10 years.
- Flexible sigmoidoscopy is much like 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. Bowel prep may be required, but is not as extensive as the one used for colonoscopy. Most people do not need to be sedated during this test. If polyps or suspicious areas are seen, a colonoscopy will be needed to look at the rest of the colon. Flexible sigmoidoscopy must be done every 5 years.
- Double-contrast barium enema is a type of x-ray test. It involves putting a liquid called barium into the rectum, which spreads through the colon. Air is then pumped in to spread the barium in a thin, smooth layer to show better detail. Then x-rays are taken. It requires bowel prep, but no sedation. If polyps or suspicious areas are seen on the test, a follow-up colonoscopy will be needed. Barium enemas also need to be repeated every 5 years.
- CT colonography (also called virtual colonoscopy) is a scan of the colon and rectum that produces detailed cross-sectional images so the doctor can look for polyps or cancer. It requires bowel prep, but no sedation. Air is pumped into the rectum and colon, and then a CT scanner is used to take images of the colon. If something is seen that may need to be biopsied, a follow-up colonoscopy will be needed. CT colonography must be done every 5 years.
- Guaiac-based fecal occult blood test (gFOBT) and fecal immunochemical test (FIT) are used to find tiny amounts of blood in the stool that could be a sign of cancer or large polyps. People take these tests at home with a kit they receive from their doctor’s office, along with instructions. A positive result will need to be followed up with a colonoscopy. However, many times the cause is a non-cancerous condition, such as ulcers or hemorrhoids. Stool tests like these need to be done every year.
Doctors can never stress enough how regular screening can be your most powerful weapon for preventing colon cancer. If you are 50 or older, or at higher risk for colon cancer because of family history or certain health conditions, talk to your doctor asap about which test is right for you and get tested as often as recommended.