Nearly 50,000 people died from some form of colon cancer last year; tens of thousands of people could be putting themselves at risk by failing to be screened.
Colorectal cancer is the fourth most common form of cancer in the United States and the second deadliest. The National Cancer Institute estimates that when the data from 2016 is all analyzed, nearly 50,000 men and women will have died from some form of colon cancer, and the risk of death only increases with age.
In spite of this, tens of thousands of people could be putting themselves at risk for colon cancer by failing to be screened. According to research conducted in upstate New York by Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, nearly one third of men and women in the highest risk age range have never been properly screened for colorectal cancer.
What are the colon cancer screening guidelines?
For adults with a normal risk profile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that regular screening begin at age 50 and continue until age 75.
Most forms of colorectal cancer develop after age 50, though adults older than 75 are more likely to die from the disease. This is generally because, by that age, the cancer has progressed without treatment. Early detection, the CDC notes, can prevent colon cancer from becoming fatal.
For adults ages 76 and over, it is best to consult with your doctor and decide whether and when to be screened.
Colon cancer screening for high risk people
Some adults are at high risk for developing colon or colorectal cancer. If you fall into one of these groups, the Colon Cancer Alliance recommends that you begin regular testing earlier than age 50.
If you have a family history of colon cancer or polyps, you should begin screening at age 40 or 10 years before the youngest case in your immediate family. That means if your father developed colon cancer at age 49, you should talk to your doctor about getting tested starting at age 39.
Other high-risk groups include those with a genetic link to colon cancer, such as Lynch syndrome, and anyone with a personal history of any form of cancer. If you fall into either of these groups, you should speak with your doctor about early screening.
African Americans are more likely to develop colon cancer than people of other ethnicities in the United States and should begin testing at age 45.
If you suffer from colorectal conditions such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, or inflammatory bowel disease, you could be at higher risk for developing colon cancer. You may need to begin screening before age 50, but it is best to consult with your doctor before pursuing any tests.
If you are experiencing any symptoms of colorectal cancer, you should speak with your doctor and be tested as soon as possible. Symptoms include rectal bleeding accompanied by changes in bowel habits, abdominal pain, or persistent fatigue. However, colon cancer often develops with no symptoms at all, which is why regular screening is so important.
Types of colon cancer screening
Colon cancer usually develops from precancerous polyps, or growths in the colon. If these are detected early on, they can be removed before developing into cancer. Testing can also find cancer when it is still in its early stages, when treatment is most successful and the cancer is less likely to be fatal.
The most common type of screening is a colonoscopy, which can detect both polyps and cancer. The American Gastroenterological Association recommends that if a colonoscopy doesn’t find abnormalities or cancer, and you don’t have any risk factors, you don’t need another colonoscopy for 10 years. If your doctor removes one or two adenomas or polyps, you should have another colonoscopy in five to 10 years.
Other tests that the American Cancer Society recommends include a flexible sigmoidoscopy, a barium enema, a CT colonography, and a stool DNA test. You should speak to your doctor about which test is best for you, based on your family and personal health history.
No matter which test you settle on, the important thing is to be screened, according to Richard Lockwood, MD, the chief medical officer and vice president for the Central New York region of Excellus BlueCross BlueShield. “Colon cancer screening is covered in full as an ‘essential benefit’ of all health insurance,” said Lockwood. “So there’s really no excuse for not getting screened… and it could save your life.”
March 18, 2020
Janet O’Dell, RN