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Answers to your top 3 colon cancer questions

By The Health News Team | March 22, 2024
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Although the vast majority of colorectal cancer — often called colon cancer — occurs in people age 50 and older, it can happen at any age. In fact, colorectal cancer numbers are rising among people under 50.

In 1995, people younger than 55 represented 11% of the total number of people diagnosed with colorectal cancer in the U.S. In 2019, that statistic grew to 20%. What’s more, colorectal cancer among people under 50 tends to be more aggressive.

Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in the U.S. (excluding skin cancers), and its 5-year relative survival rate is 65%. However, the survival rate increases to over 90% if the cancer is caught early, making colorectal cancer screening vital.

Here are answers to your top questions about your personal risk for colorectal cancer, colon cancer screening and more:


Am I at risk for colorectal cancer?

Colorectal cancer occurs from an abnormal growth in the large intestine. The risk of developing this cancer increases with age. However, people with a family history of colorectal cancer and those who have certain health conditions, including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, are at increased risk for colorectal cancer.

Some things can increase your risk of developing colorectal cancer, but can be changed by making healthy lifestyle choices. These risk factors include:

  • Being overweight or obese: Strive to maintain a healthy weight through diet and exercise.

  • Not being physically active: Get regular exercise at least five days a week.

  • Consuming an unhealthy diet: Maintain a diet high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains; and avoid red meat, processed meat, and foods high in fat, sugar and salt.

  • Drinking too much alcohol: Limit alcohol consumption to no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women.

  • Smoking: If you smoke, talk with your doctor about smoking cessation programs.

“Some people without a genetic disposition to getting colorectal cancer can still end up with the disease,” says Dr. Pamela Lee, a Sharp Rees-Stealy colon surgeon affiliated with Sharp Memorial Hospital. “We all can reduce our risk by practicing a healthy lifestyle that includes alleviating stress, consuming a high-fiber diet and regularly exercising.”


What are the signs of colon cancer?

Very often, colorectal cancer develops with few or no symptoms at all. When symptoms are noticed, 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

  • Unexplained anemia

  • Weakness or fatigue

“Monitor your symptoms, and if you suspect something may be wrong, bring it up to your doctor,” says Dr. Lee. “It’s OK to advocate for yourself and ask for a screening, even if you are young.”


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 earlier or more frequent screening if you have risk factors, such as a family history of colon cancer.

Colorectal cancer screening methods include:

  • Colonoscopy — This procedure is a visual examination of the lining of the rectum and the colon with a flexible fiber-optic endoscope, a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and lens for viewing inside the body. It may also have a tool to remove tissue.

  • Sigmoidoscopy — An examination of the rectum and lower part of the colon with a lighted tube called a sigmoidoscope. This method is limited and extends, on average, to the lower 50 centimeters of the colon and does not visualize the whole colon.

  • Virtual colonoscopy — Also called a computed tomographic colonography (CTC), this procedure uses X-rays and computers to take 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 best 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.

Various treatment options, including a minimally invasive procedure via robotic surgery, are available. Talk with your doctor about which screening method is right for you.

Learn more about colon cancer treatment at Sharp; get the latest health and wellness news, trends and patient stories from Sharp Health News; and subscribe to our weekly newsletter by clicking the "Sign up" link below.

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