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Colorectal Cancer Runs in My Family: When Should I Get Screened?

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Colorectal Cancer Runs in My Family: When Should I Get Screened?

Jan 10, 2024

Cancer is the uncontrollable division of cells. Instead of dividing and going through the life cycle, they divide uncontrollably, invading the surrounding tissues. When it happens in the colon, it’s called colorectal cancer. It usually begins as small growths, called polyps, inside the colon. Most polyps aren’t cancerous but can become cancerous, so they are often removed. 

Because polyps don’t cause symptoms, you can only be aware of their existence by undergoing regular screening. Colorectal cancer screening is recommended for all adults over the age of 45, but depending on your family history of cancer or other digestive conditions, you may need screening sooner. 

Our experts at Carolina Digestive Health Associates explain the role of genetics in colorectal cancer, who should get screened, and when.

Understanding the genetics and epigenetics of colorectal cancer 

A genetic condition that leads to polyp formation in the colon is classic familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP). This condition is caused by a change in the APC gene, a gene that is known for its ability to suppress tumors. FAP is diagnosed when more than 100 polyps are found in the colon. For people who have FAP in their family, they may start developing these polyps in their mid-teens. 

While less than 1% of colorectal cancer is considered to be due to FAP, when left untreated, the likelihood of developing cancer is very high. Fortunately, a colon polyp removal surgery takes only about an hour and doesn’t need any downtime. You may experience some gas and discomfort, but nothing serious enough to prevent you from returning to your daily routine.

While you can’t change what genes you’ve inherited from your parents, you can tweak how your lifestyle either activates or deactivates the action of genes. Epigenetics refers to the change of gene expression related to environmental changes (stress, diet, or exposure to harmful chemicals). 

Related to colorectal cancer, the biggest controllable risk factors for developing it are excessive alcohol consumption, smoking cigarettes, a sedentary lifestyle, and obesity.

Genetic testing and screening for colorectal cancer 

Genetic testing can find gene mutations linked to colorectal cancer, while a colonoscopy can be useful for looking at whether there are any polyps in your colon. If colorectal cancer runs in your family, you may need both. 

If you’ve tested positive for a gene mutation, you may benefit from a colonoscopy to detect polyps, even starting in your early 20s. If you have colorectal cancer in your family but no mutated genes, you may be advised to get screened about ten years before the youngest case of colorectal cancer in your family.

If you experience the following symptoms: diarrhea, constipation, bleeding or blood in the stools, gas, pain in the abdominal area, and unintended weight loss, you may benefit from a colonoscopy immediately.

How colorectal cancer screening can save your life 

Colorectal cancer screening can detect polyps before they turn cancerous, preventing the disease altogether. Early detection and treatment of cancer can be life-saving, as the survival rate for localized cancer is 90%.

Get peace of mind by scheduling an appointment with one of our experts and determining when you should get your next screening.