With hectic schedules and constant demands on their time, many people are likely to cancel a checkup or put off a medical test every now and then. The question I like to pose to my patients is this: wouldn’t you rather practice a little prevention now than deal with major medical treatment down the road? Indeed, prevention is the best medicine, and this is especially true when it comes to colorectal cancer.
Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death, after lung cancer. Rather than being fearful of this serious health risk, I encourage my patients to take advantage of screenings, which can detect this cancer in the early stages. It is estimated that if everyone over 50 years of age had regular screenings for colorectal cancer, more than one-third of deaths could be prevented. Let me explain how these tests work and guidelines you should follow to protect your health.
How We Test for Colon Cancer
Colorectal cancer refers to cancers of the colon or rectal area. If you are 50 or older, you should get routine screenings. There are various tests that can be performed, but they aren’t all the same. One group of tests looks for cancer or polyps inside the body. Polyps are abnormal growths that may become cancerous. For a sigmoidoscopy, a flexible scope is used by the doctor to look at the lower intestine. This test is virtually painless and easily performed in a doctor’s visit. A colonoscopy is the same, except the entire colon is viewed. This requires the patient to be under a mild sedative, but it is still an outpatient procedure.
Less invasive tests that detect cancer in the body are a double contrast barium enema, in which an x-ray is used to view the colon, and a virtual colonoscopy. This year, the American Cancer Society added the virtual colonoscopy to its list of acceptable screening methods. In this test, a CT scan is used to examine the colon.
The other group of tests requires the examination of stool samples to screen for colorectal cancer. These tests are only useful for finding cancer that is already present. Your doctor cannot screen for pre-cancerous polyps without examining the inside of your body. Therefore, these tests are often recommended in conjunction with other tests. If signs of colorectal cancer are detected in a stool sample, the patient will then need to have a colonoscopy.
When to Get Tested
Ninety-three percent of colon cancer cases are in people 50 years and older. Starting at age 50, everyone should follow the American Cancer Society’s guidelines for screening. There are a few options available, and your doctor can help decide how and when you should be tested. In general, a colonoscopy should be performed every 10 years. Alternatively, a sigmoidoscopy, a virtual colonoscopy, or a double-contrast barium enema should be performed every 5 years. If your doctor recommends stool tests, those are usually repeated annually.
Your risk for developing colorectal cancer increases as you get older, so keeping up with your screenings is essential. This type of cancer affects both men and women, so regular testing is equally important for everyone. If you have a family history of colorectal cancer, be sure to discuss it with your doctor. You may need to be tested more frequently. People with inflammatory bowl disease are at greater risk, and may also require a more rigorous testing protocol.
Good habits are the key to preventing disease, and that includes regular screenings for colorectal cancer. If the disease is detected early, treatment will be more effective. Dangerous polyps can be removed before they even become cancerous. Colon screenings may not be much fun, but I’m sure you’ll agree that prevention is far better than the alternative. If you are due for a screening, I encourage you to call your doctor today!
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