As of 2019, colon cancer is the second deadliest form of cancer in the United States, affecting both men and women in equal numbers. Cases in younger patients have been so prevalent in recent years that the American Cancer Society lowered the screening guidelines in 2019 from age 50 to age 45. Screening is especially important when it comes to colorectal cancer as the signs for colon cancer may not be readily noticeable until the disease has already progressed. Read on to learn about the initial signs of colon cancer, why screening is imperative, and what you can do to help prevent this deadly disease.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Colon Cancer?
The early symptoms of colon cancer may seem quite innocuous, and patients may think that they simply have some gastrointestinal upset or a passing virus. It’s important to note that colon cancer begins as polyps in the colon (or rectum; thus, the term colorectal cancer). These polyps grow over time and become cancerous. After more time passes, colon cancer often metastasizes (spreads to other parts of the body). Early colorectal cancer symptoms may mimic conditions such as stomach upset or a case of diarrhea. One of the first things to be on the lookout for is a change in bowel habits. For some, this could be persistent constipation, but in others, it may be persistent diarrhea. It’s best to let your doctor know if these types of symptoms persist for more than a few days or a week. Other initial colon cancer signs include:
- Blood in the stool
- Unexplained weight loss
- Abdominal cramping
- Changes in the stool
If you’re experiencing one or more of these symptoms consistently or for more than a few days, let your doctor know so you can have a complete checkup.
Why Is Screening for Colon Cancer Important?
Screening is vitally important not only to diagnose colon cancer but also to treat it. Colonoscopy is the gold standard for colon cancer screening, and it is the only screening test in the medical field that can both diagnose and treat colon cancer all within the same procedure. The doctor will use the colonoscope to look for polyps both in the colon and rectum. However, if the physician finds polyps, he or she can remove them during the procedure. Of course, colon cancer in the later stages will require more aggressive treatment, but in its early stages, polyps can be easily removed during colonoscopy.
Once colon cancer begins to progress, the outlook for survival dims. If colorectal cancer is caught in its early stages, such as Stage I or the beginnings of Stage II, the five-year survival rate hovers around 95 percent. If colon cancer progressed to late-stage Stage III or the beginnings of Stage IV, the five-year survival rate drops to around 12 percent. Those who schedule their screenings on time have a much better chance of colorectal cancer being discovered early.
Is Colon Cancer Preventable?
Scientists and researchers are still not 100 percent sure what the definitive cause of colon cancer is, but it is well-documented that many cases of colon cancer are a mix of genetics and lifestyle factors. It is important to note that those of African-American or Ashkenazi Jewish descent have higher rates of colon cancer. Also, those with inherited syndromes such as Lynch syndrome see more cases of colon cancer. It is exceedingly important to know your family history so that you can report it to your doctor. If someone in your family, such as a first-degree relative has had colon cancer, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), or polyps, you should notify your doctor. This may qualify you for an earlier screening (before the age of 45), as you are likely in a high-risk category.
Certain behaviors are strongly correlated with cases of colon cancer. Obesity and leading a sedentary lifestyle both contribute strongly to the development of colon cancer. Patients are advised to keep their body mass index (BMI) within normal ranges, eat a healthy diet full of leafy greens and fiber, and exercise as regularly as possible. Other risk factors for colon cancer include:
- Drinking heavily/alcoholic drinking
- Red meat consumption (especially in women)
- Eating sugary, fatty foods
Patients are also advised to quit smoking, curtail drinking, and limit red meat, sugar, and fat consumption. Not only do these practices lead to other health problems, but they are also strongly tied to colon cancer. If you need more information about colon cancer or want to schedule a screening or colonoscopy, request an appointment Associates in Digestive Health today. We offer two separate offices for convenience and provide all levels of care when it comes to gastrointestinal and related issues.