Health & Fitness

Screening for colon cancer ensures best outcome

Colon cancer likely is one of those topics seldom discussed at parties, at the dinner table or even among friends. However, there are good reasons to talk about colon cancer and be aware of how to reduce your risks for this disease.

More than 150,000 new colon cancer cases are diagnosed each year in the United States. Colon cancer affects men and women equally, is highly preventable, and can be detected before there are symptoms. Abnormal growths on the wall of the colon, called polyps, are usually non-cancerous and cause no symptoms. In fact, even early-stage cancers do not have any symptoms. Late-stage colon cancers can cause bleeding, unexplained anemia, changes in bowel habits such as constipation or diarrhea, abdominal discomfort, and weight loss.

To decrease your risk for colon cancer, eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, limit red meat to fewer than two servings per week, take daily calcium and vitamin D supplements, avoid smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, exercise regularly, and maintain a normal weight.

Early detection of colon cancer helps ensure the best possible outcome. The optimal age to start screening depends on ethnicity, family, and personal history, but beginning at age 50, all men and women should be screened for colon cancer, even if they have no symptoms.

Because of a higher incidence of colon cancer, African- Americans should start screening at 45, as well as people with inflammatory bowel disease or rare inherited colorectal cancer syndromes, and people who smoke, are overweight, or are sedentary.

Those with a family history of colon cancer should start screenings at an age 10 years younger than the age the family member was when that person was diagnosed.

There are a variety of tests that detect polyps early, before you have any symptoms. These include colonoscopy, flexible sigmoidoscopy, or a Barium enema. A Hemoccult test can detect minute amounts of blood in your stool, and it is a test you can perform at home and send back to a laboratory.

If the test is positive, a colonoscopy will then be done to make sure the bleeding is not from a cancerous polyp. To figure out what test is right for you, discuss your options with your primary health provider.

However, the best way to detect polyps early is by having a colonoscopy screening. During a colonoscopy, a specially trained physician passes a slender endoscope through the rectum into the colon to look for abnormalities such as a polyp. Most polyps found during colonoscopy can be completely removed. Removal of these polyps reduces the likelihood of developing colon cancer in the future. This is almost always done in an outpatient setting that does not require an overnight stay.

If you are already experiencing some symptoms, check with your health care provider right away. The earlier the cancer is detected, the better your chances are for removal and for stopping it from spreading. With cancer caught early, surgery to remove the cancerous portion of the colon may be all that is needed. In more advanced cases, chemotherapy also might be needed.

Dr. Diana Yu is the Health Officer for Thurston and Mason counties. Contact her at 360-867-2501 or yud@co.thurston.wa.us.

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