Colorectal cancer is a common and lethal disease. It is estimated that approximately 135,430 new cases of large bowel cancer are diagnosed annually in the United States, including approximately 95,520 colon and 39,910 rectal cancers. Approximately 50,260 Americans are expected to die of large bowel cancer each year. Colon cancer remains the third most common cause of cancer death in the United States in women, and the second leading cause of death in men.
The positive news about colon cancer is that it is 100% preventable. Colon Cancer starts as a growth inside the colon called a polyp. There are several types of polyps. There are some kinds of polyps that do not ever turn into cancer called “hyperplastic polyps” while others DO cause cancer called “serrated and adenomatous polyps.” A serrated polyp or an adenomatous polyp starts out very small and non-dangerous, but if allowed to grow unchecked, it has a 10-40% chance of turning into cancer, depending on the type of polyp. A colonoscopy can prevent colon cancer by removing these polyps before they ever have a chance to grow into cancer.
There are little to no symptoms of polyps growing in your large intestine (or colon.) The main way we find them is by doing a “screening” test. A screening test is a diagnostic test that is performed on someone who has no symptoms. There are multiple types of colon cancer screening. These include:
- Direct imaging: Colonoscopy, sigmoidoscopy
- Stool studies: Cologard, Fit, and Hemoccult
The colonoscopy is considered the gold standard test because it is the most sensitive test, (meaning the best way to prove whether or not you have a polyp). Colonoscopies are performed by Gastroenterologists, General surgeons, and Family Physicians. I have received training in colonoscopies and offer this service as part of my practice.
Stool studies also offer screens, and they are very easy and affordable to do. However, if the stool test comes back positive, you need to have a colonoscopy to confirm and treat any polyps that may be there. You should ask your doctor which test is right for you.
The general recommendation is to start colon cancer screening at age 50. If a 1st degree family member (parent, sibling, or child) has had precancerous polyps or colon cancer, you need to start even earlier, often 10 years prior to the diagnosis of your family member, or at age 40, whichever is earlier. However, if you have rectal bleeding of any sort, you may need a colonoscopy and you should talk to your physician today.
Wade Butaud, MD
Canyon View Family Medicine