When we think of cancer prevention, we typically think of those we hear the most about, such as breast cancer or lung cancer. One of the most common cancers is actually colon cancer: cancer of the large intestine and lower part of the digestive system. It is the third most common cancer and the second-leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. – and early detection dramatically increases the survival rate.
More than 145,000 new cases of colon cancer have been diagnosed in the U.S. over the past five years, according to the National Cancer Institute. If detected before it spreads, the five-year survival rate is about 90 percent – but if not caught before this point, the survival rate dips to just 10 percent.
The exact causes of colon cancer are unknown. One of the most important preventive steps is to get a colonoscopy, a screening test to detect any signs of cancer. A colonoscopy is a procedure to see inside the colon and rectum. Used as either a screening test or a diagnostic tool, it can help your doctor investigate unusual symptoms such as unexplained changes in bowel habits, abdominal pain, rectal bleeding, and weight loss.
A colonoscopy is performed using a long, thin, flexible tube, which is inserted through the rectum into the lower digestive tract, while the patient is sedated or asleep. The tube is equipped with a light and a tiny camera that transmits images of the patient’s intestinal lining to a computer screen located at the bedside. This enhanced view allows the doctor to see inflamed tissue and any abnormal growths.
If polyps (growths) are found during the exam, they are quickly and painlessly removed at that time, and later tested in a laboratory for signs of cancer. Polyps are common in adults, and usually harmless. However, most colorectal cancer begins as a polyp, so removing polyps early is an effective prevention method. Your doctor can also take samples from abnormal-looking tissues – a biopsy – during the colonoscopy, so that any suspicious areas can be examined for signs of disease and treated, if necessary.
Your risk level for colon cancer varies according to your age, gender and ethnic background, as well as your overall health and lifestyle. Factors that affect your risk level include:
– Advancing age (over age 50)
– Male gender
– African American ethnic status
– A family or personal history of polyps(growths inside the rectum or colon), or colorectal cancer
– A high-fat diet
– Certain digestive diseases, diabetes, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis
Depending on your age, a colonoscopy screening may be a covered “wellness” test under your insurance plan – and most plans cover a colonoscopy completely as a follow-up test or diagnostic tool. Check with your insurance provider and your doctor’s office for help in scheduling a screening exam.
About the Author: Kenneth G. Sigman, MD, is a board certified gastroenterologist and Chief of the GI Division atTrinity Medical Center.