Colon health is not something people often talk about, and many don't realize how significant it is. Yet, colon cancer is the third-leading cause of cancer-related death for men and women in the U.S. One in three people who are diagnosed with colon cancer will die of the disease. It's very important to catch colon cancer at early or pre-cancerous stages. The earlier we catch these pre-malignant lesions, the better the prognosis.
What Is Colon Cancer?
Colon cancer, also referred to as colorectal cancer, is cancer occurs in the colon or rectum. The term colorectal cancer is used to describe colon cancer, rectum cancer or both.
According to the American Cancer Society, most colorectal cancers develop first as polyps, which are abnormal growths inside the colon or rectum that may later become cancerous if not removed.
If cancer forms in a polyp, it can grow into the wall of the colon or rectum over time. The wall of the colon and rectum is made up of many layers. Colorectal cancer starts in the innermost layer and can grow outward through some, or all, of the other layers.
When cancer cells are in the wall, they can then grow into blood vessels or lymph vessels (tiny channels that carry away waste and fluid). From there, they can travel to nearby lymph nodes or to distant parts of the body.
Why Does A Colonoscopy Matter?
The colonoscopy remains the most popular option of colon cancer screening testing strategies because of its ability to directly visualize the colon and remove any discovered lesions that same day.
If you are still leery of having a colonoscopy, there are less invasive alternatives to screen for colon cancer. For example, at-home stool sample tests such as the fecal immunochemical test (FIT) helps identify microscopic blood that may be arising from the lower gastrointestinal tract or the newer stool-based test, most commonly known as Cologuard®, tests for blood and altered DNA in your stool, which are associated with the possibility of cancer or pre-cancer. FIT screening is done yearly, but colonoscopies are often recommended every 10 years.
When any of these stool tests returns positive, a colonoscopy is always the next recommended step. It's recommended that you discuss available colon cancer screening strategies with your healthcare provider.
Who Should Be Screened For Colon Cancer?
The majority of people with no family history of colon cancer or colon polyps should begin colorectal cancer screening at age 45, according to American Cancer Society guidelines. African-Americans are at a slightly higher risk of developing pre-malignant polyps earlier in life, and may need to begin screening earlier.
If you have one first degree relative (parent or sibling) or two second degree relatives (grandparents, aunts or uncles) who have had colon cancer or high risk polyps, you are at a greater risk of developing pre-malignant polyps at an earlier age and should be screened sooner.
Patients should discuss colon cancer screening and timing of testing with their healthcare professional during their routine health maintenance visits to ensure appropriate timing of testing.
Surveillance strategies are highly individualized. It's important to follow up with your doctor after any testing to have a clear plan in place moving forward. Talk to your primary care physician or a gastroenterologist about the colon cancer screening options that are available to you.