How Colorectal Cancer Screening Can Save Your Life

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According to Dr. Harbir Sawhney, gastroenterologist at Baystate Gastroenterology in Ware, the risk of developing colorectal cancer increases with age, as does the occurrence of most cancers.

Why Are Colon Cancer Screenings Important?

“A colonoscopy is considered the gold standard for testing for colorectal cancer,” says Dr. Sawhney. “Most importantly, it can save your life.”

The good news is colon cancer is a slow growing cancer and if detected early, is very treatable.

Colonoscopy Screenings Can Find Benign Polyps

“People who have polyps or polyps that have progressed to early colorectal cancer do not always have symptoms. Therefore, someone could have polyps or early colorectal cancer and not know it. Colonoscopy is the most sensitive test for detecting pre-cancerous polyps and cancers in the colon,” Dr. Sawhney says.

Polyps can be found by screening and removed before they can develop into cancers. Screening is also allowing more colorectal cancers to be found earlier when the disease is easier to cure. Treatment for colorectal cancer has improved over the last several years.

“As a result, there are now more than one million survivors of colorectal cancer in the United States,” Dr. Sawhney says. “When colorectal cancer is detected in the earliest stage of the disease, the survival rate is greater than 90 %.”

Dr. Sawhney recommends patients begin screening colonoscopies soon after turning 50, and then continue getting screened at regular intervals every 10 years.

“However, you may need to be tested earlier or more often than other people if you or a close relative have had flexible sigmoidoscopy and colonoscopy or colorectal cancer or if you have inflammatory bowel disease,”Dr. Sawhney says. “Your primary care provider will determine what screening test is best for you and when you should have it.”

Is a Colorectal Cancer Screening the Same as a Colonoscopy?

A colonoscopy is one of several screening tests that can be used to find polyps or colorectal cancer. If your test result is positive or abnormal on some screening tests (stool tests, flexible sigmoidoscopy, and CT colonography), you will then need a colonoscopy test.

Two very common screening procedures are flexible sigmoidoscopy and colonoscopy. The difference between the two procedures is that the sigmoidoscopy only looks at a portion of the colon, while the colonoscopy goes through the entire colon.

An advantage to these methods is the doctor is able to not only detect polyps but remove them at the same time. This prevents the polyp from becoming cancerous.

Colon Cancer Risk Factors

“While there is no single, defined cause of colorectal cancer, there are a number of risk factors, Dr. Sawhney said.

Some risk factors we cannot control include:

  • Age
  • History of polyps
  • Cancers or other bowel disease
  • Family history
  • Ethnicity

Several risk factors within our control include:

  • A diet high in red meat
  • Smoking
  • Excessive alcohol use
  • Lack of exercise
  • Being overweight
  • Having type 2 diabetes 

Colon Cancer Screening Guidelines

People who have an average risk for colorectal cancer typically begin colonoscopies at age 50, and then every 10 years. People with a higher risk may need to start earlier or have more frequent screenings. Recommended colon cancer screenings may include stool tests, flexible sigmoidoscopy, colonoscopy, and CT colonography (virtual colonoscopy).

According to the CDC, you should be tested earlier if you have:

  • Inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
  • personal or family history of colorectal cancer or colorectal polyps
  • A genetic syndrome such as familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP)external icon or hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (Lynch syndrome)

Talk to Your Doctor

If you are due for a colonoscopy or think you are at increased risk for colon cancer, talk with your healthcare provider about screening.

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