By Gennady Gelman, M.D., Family Medicine, Harrington Physician Services
Colorectal cancer (also called colon cancer) is the third most common cancer in the United States. In 2016 alone, 52,286 people died from colon cancer in America.
according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). But this doesn’t have to be the case. When found in its earliest stages, the five-year survival rate for colorectal cancer is about 90%. Regular screening can even prevent colon cancer from developing in the first place, since the polyps that later turn into cancer can be found and removed.
Despite this, about one-third of people in the U.S. who fit the criteria for regular colon cancer screening have never been screened. Are you one of them? Don’t let fear of screening prevent you from taking advantage of a simple procedure that could save your life. Here’s what you need to know…
The United States Preventive Services Task Force advises all men and women between 50 and 75 years old to have a colorectal cancer screening. In some cases, people outside of this age range who have risk factors should be screened as well. Risk factors include:
- having a personal or family history of colon cancer or colorectal polyps;
- having a history of inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis;
- having diabetes;
- having a history of unhealthy lifestyle habits such as eating a low-fiber and high-fat diet, not getting regular exercise, smoking and heavy alcohol use.
You should discuss your need for screening with your primary care provider. Depending on your individual risk factors, there are a number of options for colon cancer screening tests. They include:
- Colonoscopy— In this procedure the doctor uses a thin, flexible, lighted tube to look for polyps or cancer in the colon. People ages 50 to 75 without any other risk factors should have a colonoscopy every 10 years. Those who do have risk factors may need to be screened more frequently. Your primary care provider can schedule a colonoscopy for you through Harrington HealthCare’s division of Surgical Services.
- Stool DNA test— This test looks for DNA from cancer or polyp cells in your stool. Cologuard is one popular brand of this type of test that you may have seen advertised on television. If you don’t have any additional risk factors other than age, this test is an option for you and it may be done right in the comfort of your own home. You collect a bowel movement, and the sample is sent to a lab where it is checked for cancer cells. The added convenience and comfort of this test does come at a slight cost, however. This test is more likely to miss polyps that may later turn into cancer, and it has to be done every three years. If the results come back abnormal, you will need to follow up with a colonoscopy.
- Fecal occult blood test—This test looks for blood in the stool that may be present due to polyps or cancer, but that is not visible to the naked eye. Like the DNA test, it is also done from the comfort of home. However this test needs to be repeated annually and is not appropriate for anyone who has risk factors for the disease. You apply a small amount of stool to a card kit using a brush or stick. The samples are sent to the lab and tested for the presence of blood. If blood is found, a colonoscopy will likely need to be performed.
You should talk with your doctor about which type of screening test is best for you – but regardless of which you choose, the most important thing is to be sure you get screened.