Colorectal Cancer: The Importance of Screening and Early Detection
I met Julia (name has been changed for privacy) a few years ago during a routine visit for her diabetes. She was 61 and had never been screened for colorectal cancer. She had no symptoms (no blood in the stool, chronic diarrhea or constipation, no abdominal pain) and no family history of colorectal cancer. After discussion of screening options, she decided to submit a stool sample to check for hidden blood. The test came back positive for blood and Julia followed the recommendation to get a colonoscopy. During the colonoscopy, I encountered a very large 3 cm polyp that was very likely in the process of becoming a colon cancer in the next couple of years. Fortunately, I was able to remove the polyp during the colonoscopy and the pathology confirmed that the polyp was pre-cancerous. Over the next few years, Julia had 2 more colonoscopies with a couple of smaller polyps easily removed. Thanks to colorectal cancer screening, Julia has been able to avoid the pain and heartache that would have come with the development of colon cancer. Screening had saved her life.
What is Colorectal Cancer?
Colorectal cancer is cancer that begins in the colon (large intestines) or the rectum. It is the third most common cancer among both men and women in the United States, and it occurs most often in people over the age of 50.
Why Is Screening For Colorectal Cancer So Important?
Many colorectal cancers can be prevented through regular screening. Screening can find precancerous polyps— abnormal growths in the colon or rectum—so that they can be removed before they turn into cancer. Screening is crucial because when found early, colorectal cancer is highly treatable. Early stages of colorectal cancer usually present no symptoms, which tend to appear as the cancer progresses.
When should I get screened?
For most people, screening is recommended starting at age 50. If you have a family history of colorectal cancer, you should start screening 10 years before the age at which your first-degree relative was diagnosed. Other conditions (like Crohn’s disease or Ulcerative Colitis) would also lead to an earlier age for screening. Talk to your provider about your specific recommendations.
What are my screening options?
Discussion with your primary care provider can you help you choose from one of the following screening options:
- Colonoscopy once every 10 years if normal (more frequently if abnormal)
- *Sigmoidoscopy once every 5 years if normal
- *Virtual colonoscopy (CT colonoscopy) once every 5 years if normal
- *Fecal occult blood test once a year if normal
- *DNA stool tests once every 3 years if normal
*If any of these tests are abnormal, it is recommended that you get a colonoscopy
What Is a Colonoscopy?
A colonoscopy is the only screening test that also prevents many colorectal cancers. Here are a few things you should know about this test:
- During a colonoscopy, your doctor examines the lining of your entire colon to check for polyps or tumors. If any polyps are found, they can be removed immediately.
- On the day of the colonoscopy, you will receive medication to help you relax. Most people fall asleep and do not remember much about the test when they wake up.
- Your doctor performs a colonoscopy by inserting a long, thin, flexible tube called a colonoscope into your colon through the rectum. The tube has a tiny video camera and light at the end that sends images to a video monitor.
- Before the procedure, you will receive instructions from your doctor on what to eat and how to empty your bowels.
Follow Julia’s example and get screened for colorectal cancer. It just might save your life.
Please visit our website at www.trhs.org or call our clinic at 208-466-7869 to set up an appointment with one of our providers. At Terry Reilly, we can help our patients get screened (including via colonoscopy) without having to be referred to another specialist – one of the great benefits of being part of a Patient-Centered Medical Home.
-Stuart Black, MD
Dr. Black serves as Medical Director for Terry Reilly Health Services
To see Idaho Press Tribune’s article, click here.