The colon and rectum are part of the gastrointestinal system, often referred as the digestive system, and together make up the large intestine. Colon cancer occurs in the colon or rectum – first beginning as a polyp on the inner lining. These irregular growths may become cancerous if not removed. If cancer begins to form in a polyp, it may eventually grow into the wall of the colon or rectum. Once the cancer cells are in the wall, the cells have the potential to grow and travel to nearby lymph nodes or other parts of the body.
According to the Colon Cancer Alliance, colon cancer is the third most diagnosed cancer and the second leading cause of cancer death in men and women combined in the United States. Men and women of all racial and ethnic groups 50 years and older are at a higher risk of colon cancer. The average age of diagnosis is 72. For several decades, colon cancer survival rates have increased in both men and women. More than likely, this is because of increased awareness and screenings.
Colorectal cancer screenings are one of the most powerful weapons to fight colorectal cancer. Because of screenings, colorectal polyps are found more often and removed before becoming cancerous. If cancer is already present, earlier detection decreases the risk of cancer progression and treatments are more likely to succeed. Colon screening methods vary, but each screening ultimately views the colon to identify any abnormal areas – looking for colorectal polyps and cancer. Starting at age 50, men and women should have routine colon screenings. The average colon screening takes less than 30 minutes, involves virtually no pain and includes little risk. Some colon screenings require dietary restrictions beforehand to prep and clean the colon.
One of the most common colon screenings is a colonoscopy, which uses a scope with a light and camera viewing the entire colon to detect polyps. If a small polyp is found, it may be removed that moment with a wire loop and sent to a lab to be evaluated for cancer. The suggested frequency for this screening is 10 years, depending on results. Other colon screenings include fecal immunochemical test (FIT) and fecal occult blood test (FOBT). FIT and FOBT test for blood by swabbing a stool sample. Additional testing may be necessary if blood is found. FIT and FOBT should be conducted annually. Lastly, a sigmoidoscopy is encouraged every five years. Like a colonoscopy, this test also uses a lighted tube with a camera but is only able to view roughly one-third of the colon. Talk to your doctor about the right screening for you.
If colon cancer is detected, your doctor will evaluate the location of the tumor and the stage of the disease. Treatment may involve surgery, chemotherapy, biological therapy, liver-directed therapy or radiation therapy. When colon cancer does develop, it has very few, if any, symptoms. Some symptoms may include:
- A change in bowel habits
- Persistent abdominal discomfort
- Rectal bleeding
- Weakness or fatigue
Because colorectal cancer may not initially cause pain or symptoms, it is important to be proactive and talk with your doctor. Schedule your colorectal cancer screening today!
About the Author
David Baker, DO, earned his medical degree from Kansas City University of Health Sciences College of Osteopathic Medicine, Kansas City, Missouri. Board-certified in general surgery, he completed his residency at Doctors Hospital, Columbus, Ohio, and completed an internship at Freeman Health System, Joplin, Missouri. Dr. Baker joined Freeman Health System in 2009. To schedule a colon screening at Freeman Center for Digestive Health or for more information, please visit freemanhealth.com/colon or call 417.347.8636.