This March - and every March - is set aside for colon cancer awareness. Whether it’s reminding you that it’s time to schedule your colonoscopy, or you’re honoring someone who has passed away, or you’re celebrating being cancer-free, this is an opportunity to wear dark blue to help spread awareness to others about this dangerous disease. It’s estimated that 1 in 3 people are not up to date with their colon or colorectal cancer screenings, which means they could have the beginning stages of colon cancer and not know it. Part of the message that goes along with colon cancer awareness is that early detection truly saves lives. Read on to learn more about March and Colon Cancer Awareness Month, more about colon cancer, risk factors you should know about, and when you should be screened.
Colon cancer is one of the most deadly cancers and is the second leading cause of cancer death among both men and women in the United States. The reason that colon cancer and colorectal cancer is so insidious is that it is largely asymptomatic until it reaches the later stages of the disease. By the time colon cancer has progressed to these later stages, survival rates drop sharply. One of the main symptoms associated with colon cancer - a change in bowel habits - is a symptom benign enough to be associated with a host of gastrointestinal disturbances, and could be the result of something as simple as digestion. Here are some statistics relating to colon and colorectal cancer:
There are also other facts and figures to keep in mind, and this is why early detection and screening are so important. Colon cancer and colorectal cancer (cancer of both the colon and rectum) is divided into stages and substages. Colon cancer stages have estimated survival rates, which are:
As the above figures show, survival rates decrease sharply for cancer diagnosed beyond stage II.
There are very few noticeable symptoms of colon cancer when the disease is in its earliest stages. It is essential to understand how colon cancer begins, which is usually small, benign cells known as polyps that form on the inside of the colon. Over time, these benign cells may turn cancerous and become colon cancer. Polyps are asymptomatic and do not produce symptoms. If you have polyps on your colon, they are only visible through diagnostic testing, such as colonoscopy.
Signs and symptoms of colon cancer also, unfortunately, may mimic other GI disturbances, so you may not realize something is immediately wrong. Common symptoms include:
If you experience any GI symptoms or changes in bowel habits that persist longer than several days, you should let your doctor know immediately.
There are many risk factors for colon cancers, although doctors are still not entirely sure why some patients are predisposed to polyps and colon cancer, and others are not. Some risk factors are genetic, or otherwise unavoidable, and there are risk factors that you have more control over, like lifestyle choices.
Lifestyle risk factors for colon cancer include:
Genetic risk factors or unavoidable risk factors for colon cancer include:
When it comes to preventative measures for colon cancer, healthcare providers advise that:
If you find that you’re struggling with lifestyle measures, such as curtailing drinking, quitting smoking, or choosing healthier foods, talk to your doctor to get help in these areas.
Colonoscopy isn’t the only screening diagnostic available to check for colorectal cancer - so why is it held in such high regard? One of the reasons is because it is the only diagnostic that can check for polyps and remove them in one appointment. No one looks forward to the time and the prep involved with a colonoscopy - but if your physician finds polyps, he or she can remove them during the procedure. Other screening tests can’t do that, and take-home or fecal occult stool tests certainly can’t. This is why colonoscopy remains the gold standard and is truly a life-saving tool.
As of May 2018, the American Cancer Society lowered its screening guidelines from age 50 to 45 for both men and women because of the prevalence of colon cancer diagnoses in younger patients. If you’re nearing age 45, there’s no better time than the present to start talking to your doctor about a colonoscopy. Just something to note - not all insurance companies have unfortunately got on board with the new guidelines, so be sure to check with them first.
If you are high-risk, you may want to consider asking your physician about having your first colonoscopy before the age of 45. You’re likely considered high-risk if you met any of the criteria under “genetic risk factors” or “unavoidable risk factors.” So, if you have a family history or personal history of colon cancer, polyps, IBD, or inherited syndromes, or if your ethnic background puts you in a high-risk category, let your doctor know.
Whether you’re a survivor, a friend, a family member, or just someone who wants to get involved, you may be asking, “what can I do”? There are a few ways to get involved for Colon Cancer Awareness Month:
One of the best ways to spread awareness is to schedule your colonoscopy and keep the appointment, and let others know that you’ve done so! If you need more information about colon cancer or colonoscopy or would like to schedule your yearly exam, book an appointment with Carolina Digestive Health Associates. We have eight locations and four endoscopy centers to help serve you better.