Many people are embarrassed to talk about colorectal cancer, even with their doctors. But silence can be deadly. When detected early, it's one of the most curable and preventable cancers, yet it's the third-leading cancer killer in the nation, according to the American Cancer Society.
What is colorectal cancer?
Colorectal cancer forms in the tissue of the colon or rectum. It affects men and women equally. It develops when abnormal cells in the colon and rectum grow into polyps, which eventually turn into cancer. It usually takes about 10 to 15 years for polyps to turn into cancer, and there are often no visible symptoms until the disease is in its late stages. Getting screened is the only way to help curb this deadly cancer trend.
Why should I get screened?
Colorectal cancer is one of the slowest-progressing cancers. Since it takes so long to develop, polyps can be easily detected and removed with a colonoscopy. Even if the polyp has already turned into cancer, it's much easier to treat in its early stages.
How do I get tested?
There are three screening methods for colorectal cancer. Talk to your doctor about how often you should be tested and the right method for you.
- A fecal occult blood test (FOBT) checks for blood in the stool.
- During a flexible sigmoidoscopy, a doctor inserts a short, thin, lighted tube into the rectum to check for polyps in the rectum and lower colon.
- A colonoscopy is similar to a sigmoidoscopy except a longer tube checks the entire colon. Most polyps are removed during this process.
How often should I get tested?
Based on national guidelines, most people should begin routine screenings at age 50 (or age 45 for African Americans). Those with a family history or risk factors for colorectal cancer should get tested earlier or more often. Inflammatory bowel disease and disorders that cause frequent polyp growth are major risk factors.
FOBTs are usually performed annually. Sigmoidoscopies are usually done every five years. Colonoscopies should be performed every 10 years, but your doctor may recommend more-frequent procedures if they discover abnormalities in an earlier test.
Does it hurt?
"No one looks forward to a colorectal cancer screening," explains Larry Hsu, M.D., "but many patients have told me after a colonoscopy that if they knew how easy the procedure was, they wouldn't have been nervous or avoided it."
During a colonoscopy, you may be given a sedative and the procedure only takes about 30 minutes. Most people are back to work the next day. The most unpleasant part is preparing for the test by cleaning out your bowels. "Even this process has become much easier over the years," says Hsu. "And the other two screening methods are a breeze."
What else can I do?
Colonoscopies are the best weapon against colorectal cancer. But you can help lower your risk of developing the disease (and many diseases) by eating a healthy diet and staying physically active.
High-fiber diets rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains have been linked to lower risks of colon cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. Several studies have shown that excessive alcohol use and obesity can increase your risk.
Why don't people get tested?
People give lots of excuses to avoid colonoscopies. Some are too busy, don't like the preparation involved, or are afraid that it will hurt. Many people are uncomfortable exposing or discussing their bottoms. But with a nearly 100 percent success rate of preventing or treating early stages of colorectal cancer with colonoscopies, no excuse is good enough.