According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the US. It is expected to cause about 49,700 deaths during 2015.
What Is Colon Cancer?
Colon cancer is a form of cancer found in the colon or the rectum. Both are part of the digestive system or the gastrointestinal (GI) system. Most colorectal cancers develop slowly over several years. Before a cancer develops, a growth of tissue or tumor usually begins as a non-cancerous polyp on the inner lining of the colon or rectum.
Screening is the process of looking for cancer or pre-cancer in people who have no symptoms of the disease. Colonoscopies are the most effective screenings allowing for examining the entire colon. These routine screenings can often find colorectal cancer early, when it is most likely to be curable. In many people, screening can also prevent colorectal cancer altogether. This is because some polyps, or growths, can be found and removed before they have the chance to turn into cancer.
What are Symptoms of Colon Cancer?
The most common symptom of colon cancer is having no symptom at all, which is why regular screening is critical. If you experience any of the following symptoms, talk to your doctor about scheduling a screening, especially if you have a personal or family history of cancer or colon polyps.
- A change in bowel habits such as diarrhea, constipation, or narrowing of the stool that lasts for more than a few days
- Rectal bleeding or blood in the stool
- Cramping or stomach pain
- Feeling bloated or full in the stomach
- Gas pains
- Weakness and fatigue
- Decreased appetite
- Losing weight when you are not trying to
The symptoms of colon cancer may resemble other conditions such as infections, hemorrhoids and inflammatory bowel disease. If you have these symptoms, consult your physician.
What is a Colonoscopy and When Should I Have One?
A colonoscopy lets the doctor closely examine the inside of the entire colon and rectum where tissue samples are collected, polyps may be removed and images taken using a small camera attached to a flexible tube. The doctor is looking for polyps which could be early signs of cancer.
You should start having routine colonoscopies at the age of 50. Colon cancer can affect anyone and risks only increase with age. Some risk factors include:
- Are 50 years of age or older
- Are African-American or of eastern European – these groups are often diagnosed at a later stage of the disease
- Eat a diet high in red or processed meat
- Have cancer or have had cancer elsewhere in the body
- Have colorectal polyps
- Have inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis)
- Have a family history of colorectal, ovarian, endometrial, breast or other cancers of the GI tract or the female reproductive system
- Have a personal history of breast cancer
If you have a family history or are at least 50 or older, call you physician to schedule a colonoscopy. For additional information about colon cancer and screening, visit the American Cancer Society.