Although the vast majority of colorectal cancer — often called colon cancer — occurs in people 50 or older, it can happen at any age. In fact, colorectal cancer numbers are rising among people under 50.
However, while colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in the U.S. (excluding skin cancers), there's about a 90% cure rate if the cancer is found early. And the best way to find colon cancer is through screening.
Here are answers to your top questions about colon cancer screening and more:
Am I at risk for colorectal cancer?
Everyone is at risk for colorectal cancer. However, people with a family history of colorectal cancer and those who have health conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), including ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, are at increased risk for colorectal cancer or polyps.
Some colorectal cancer risk factors can be changed, including:
Being overweight or obese
Not being physically active
Consuming a diet that is high in fat, red meat and processed meat, and low in fiber
Drinking too much alcohol
You can help lower your risk of colon cancer by maintaining a healthy weight, getting regular exercise, minimizing alcohol use, avoiding smoking, and following a diet that’s high in fiber and low in fats, processed foods and red meat.
What are the signs of colon cancer?
Very often, colorectal cancer develops with few or no symptoms at all. When symptoms do begin, the cancer has often reached an advanced stage, reducing the chance of survival. This is why recommended screenings and understanding the signs of colon cancer are critical to your health.
Whatever your age, contact your doctor if you have any of the following symptoms:
A change in bowel habits, including diarrhea or constipation, or a change in the consistency of your stool
Feeling that your bowel does not empty completely
Rectal bleeding or finding blood (either bright red or very dark) in your stool
Finding your stools are narrower than usual
Persistent abdominal discomfort, such as cramps, gas, pain or feeling full or bloated
Losing weight with no known reason
Weakness or fatigue
When should I be screened for colon cancer?
Talk to your doctor about when you should begin screening for colorectal cancer. Guidelines generally recommend screenings begin at age 45. If you are younger than 45, your doctor may recommend more frequent or earlier screening if you have other risk factors.
The following methods are used to screen for colorectal cancer:
— A visual examination of the lining of the rectum and the colon with a flexible fiber-optic endoscope.
— An examination of the rectum and lower part of the colon with a lighted tube called a sigmoidoscope. This method is limited and only extends to the lower 40 centimeters of the colon and does not visualize the whole colon.
— Also called a computed tomographic colonography (CTC), this procedure uses X-rays and computers to take 2D and 3D images of the interior lining of the colon and rectum.
At-home stool test
— Also called a fecal immunochemical test (FIT) or fecal occult blood test (FOBT), this test detects tiny amounts of blood in the stool, which is a possible sign of colon cancer.
Stool DNA test — This test uses a stool sample and looks for DNA changes in cells that might indicate the presence of precancer or colon cancer.
Screening is the No. 1 way to reduce your risk of colon cancer. Despite its high incidence, colon cancer is unique in that it is one of the most successfully treated forms of cancer when found early. Talk with your doctor about which screening method is right for you.
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