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Sharp Health News

Getting to the bottom of colorectal cancer myths

March 9, 2020

Getting to the bottom of colorectal cancer myths

Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related death in men and women combined, but with screening, it’s also one of the most preventable and treatable cancers. The gold standard for detection is a colonoscopy screening.

Dr. David Bodkin, a board-certified oncologist/hematologist affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital, says, “Adhering to screening guidelines is probably the single-most important thing you can do to reduce your risk. Adults age 50 to 75 should be screened; earlier for individuals at higher risk.”

Those with a family history of colorectal cancer or inflammatory bowel disease, such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, have increased risk and screening should start sooner. Other risk factors are age, race (African Americans are at greater risk), personal history of cancer or polyps, and certain inherited gene syndromes.

“Polyps are benign growths found in the colon and can potentially turn cancerous. During a colonoscopy screening, they can be detected and removed. And that can save your life,” he says.

Misconceptions about colonoscopies, and colorectal cancer in general, often deter people from taking steps to protect themselves against the disease. Here are five common colorectal cancer myths debunked that could save your life:

Myth 1: Only older people get colorectal cancer.
Colorectal cancer is associated with increasing age. However, for reasons that are unclear, rates are rising among younger people.

“About 90% of cases are diagnosed in those over 50, but for the last 20 years or so, the number of cases in younger adults has been increasing,” says Dr. Bodkin.

According to the National Cancer Institute, young-onset colorectal cancer — defined as colorectal cancer diagnosed before age 50 — have increased by 51% since 1994. The rise has prompted the American Cancer Society to lower their recommended screening age to 45 instead of 50.

“About 20-30% of all colorectal cancers have a family history and 15% of those diagnosed under 50 have an inherited gene syndrome,” says Dr. Bodkin. “There’s a need for more education about the importance of obtaining family history regarding polyps and cancer, paying attention to risk factors, and early screening.”

Myth 2: I don’t have any symptoms, so I don’t need to be screened.
This is one of the most common myths. Unfortunately, colorectal cancer usually produces no symptoms until it’s at an advanced stage, making it more difficult to treat.

“Screening is done to see if there are benign polyps, which have no symptoms. The purpose of a colonoscopy is to remove polyps, before cancer occurs. That’s why screening is important,” says Dr. Bodkin.

Symptoms can include blood in the stool, change in bowel habits, narrow stools, increased gas production, abdominal pain, fatigue due to anemia, and weight loss. Other conditions can also cause these symptoms; however, it’s important to see your health care provider for an evaluation.

Myth 3: A colonoscopy is unpleasant and uncomfortable.
It’s not as bad as you think. And the results could save your life.

“Many people don’t want to do it because it’s an invasive procedure,” says Dr. Bodkin.

During a colonoscopy, your doctor makes a visual examination of the lining of the colon using a flexible, fiber-optic endoscope. The colon must be completely empty and preparation requires drinking a laxative solution a day before.

However, newer preps have made the process somewhat easier and patients receive a mild sedative during the colonoscopy to help with discomfort. The procedure takes less than an hour. If you’re still reluctant, check with your health care provider for other options, although they may be less optimal.

Myth 4: Only men get colorectal cancer.
Colorectal cancer is a little more common in men, but not by much. The overall lifetime risk for men is about 1 in 22; for women it’s 1 in 24.

In 2020, an estimated 150,000 people will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer and more than 50,000 will die from the disease.

Myth 5: If I have colorectal cancer, I’m probably going to die, so best not to know.
“Screening can identify the disease at an earlier stage, which leads to a better prognosis,” says Dr. Bodkin. “Newer treatments, such as immunotherapies, have also improved survival.”

Colorectal cancer survival rates have increased over the years, in part due to awareness and screening. Caught early, there is about a 90% survival rate.

Learn more about colorectal cancer prevention and treatment at Sharp HealthCare.

For the news media: To talk with Dr. David Bodkin about colorectal cancer for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at erica.carlson@sharp.com.

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