Let's Talk About Colon Cancer Screenings
Mar 18, 2022 | Family Medicine | Share:
Did you know that March is Colon Cancer Awareness month?
Because colon cancer is beginning to affect more young people each year, the recommended age for beginning colon cancer screenings has been lowered from 50 to 45.
Colon cancer is preventable and treatable if it’s detected early. If you’re over the age of 45 or have a family history of colon cancer, now is the perfect time to schedule a colon cancer screening.
What is colon cancer?
Colon cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, is any cancer that occurs in any part of your colon. It is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States for both men and women. Colon cancer is slow-growing cancer that doesn’t always show symptoms until the disease is advanced, but it’s treatable if it’s found early. In fact, colon cancer can be prevented through regular screenings.
Colon cancer symptoms present like other conditions that affect the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. The presence of colon cancer symptoms does not necessarily indicate that you have colon cancer; however, if you have one or more of the following symptoms, you should schedule an appointment with a GI specialist.
Symptoms of colon cancer include:
- A change in your bowel habits (like diarrhea, constipation, or changes to your stool) that lasts more than a few days
- Persistent stomach cramps, gas, or pain
- Bloody stool
- Rectal bleeding
- Feeling like your bowel doesn't empty completely
- Unexplained weight loss
- Weakness or fatigue
Because symptoms of colon cancer are slow to appear, the best way to detect colon cancer is through regular screenings.
When to get screened for colon cancer
Colon cancer screenings are recommended for everyone, both men and women, 45 years or older. According to the American Cancer Society, the incidence of colon cancer among people who are under the age of 50 is rising by about 2% each year.1 About 10% of all cases diagnosed are in people under the age of 50.2 As a result, the recommended age for colon cancer screenings has been lowered from the age of 50.
You should get screened earlier than 45 if you have a family history of colon cancer. You have a family history if one direct relative (such as a mother, father, child, or sibling) has been diagnosed with colon cancer or if you have more than one extended family member (grandparent, first cousin, aunt, uncle) who has had colon cancer.
For patients who have a family history of colorectal cancer, most doctors recommend that you begin screenings ten years before the age your relative was when they were diagnosed. For example, if your father was 50 when he was diagnosed with colon cancer, you should get screened at 40. Other risk factors may also indicate a need for earlier screenings. Your primary care doctor can advise you on the best time to begin regular colon cancer screenings.
While colonoscopies are considered the best way to screen for and prevent colon cancer, other screening options do exist. Stool tests, such as the FIT test or the Stool DNA test, are less invasive options for screening. However, these tests will require a follow-up colonoscopy for positive results. Your doctor can explain your screening options and help you make an informed decision about colon cancer screening.
A colonoscopy is the most popular way to screen for colon cancer since it’s not only an accurate screening tool but also the only way to prevent colon cancer. A colonoscopy is a routine screening procedure that takes about thirty minutes and is performed under light sedation so that you do not feel or remember the procedure. Most people only need a colonoscopy once every ten years.
During a colonoscopy, your doctor will insert a long, flexible tube with a camera and a light into your colon. The doctor is able to examine the full length of your colon and can look for signs of cancer. Your doctor is able to take samples for biopsy at this time, as well as find and remove polyps from your colon.
Since almost all colon cancers begin as polyps, removing these polyps eliminates the opportunity for cancer to grow. Most people don’t know that they have polyps in their colon unless their doctor finds them during a colonoscopy.
Colonoscopies aren’t painful, and most people aren’t uncomfortable after the procedure. Some people may experience a little gas or bloating afterward. Colonoscopies are also very safe. While all medical procedures do carry some risk, the benefits of a colonoscopy generally far outweigh your risk. Your doctor can answer any questions you have about the procedure or its risks.
Because colonoscopies are considered preventive services, they are covered by private insurance carriers and Medicare, and you should have no out-of-pocket costs for these screenings. However, there may be other charges associated with your colonoscopy, so you should talk with your insurance provider to determine the exact cost of any procedure.
How to get screened for colon cancer
The best way to get screened for colon cancer is to schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor. Your primary care doctor coordinates your medical care across specialties and can help you make sure that you get the right screenings at the right time. Because your doctor is familiar with your personal and family medical history, they can help you know whether you need to start your colon cancer screenings at 45 or at an earlier age. And you don’t even need to figure out which GI doctor to see; your primary care doctor can connect you with a doctor that meets your specific needs.
Your primary care doctor can answer any questions you have about colon cancer screenings or other needed preventive care. And if you don’t already have a primary care doctor, you can schedule an appointment with one of our many providers at MedHelp who are accepting new patients for primary care.
Many people put off preventive screenings because of Covid, but don’t delay your needed screenings any longer. If you’re 45 or older, or if you have a family history of colon cancer, call your doctor today to schedule a colon cancer screening. Remember, colon cancer is both preventable and treatable if it’s detected early.