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Healthy Living

Colon Cancer Screenings Could Save Your Life

Few adults age 50 or older have regular colon cancer screenings. That's a choice that could have serious health consequences.  Cancer of the colon and rectum, called colorectal cancer, is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. But when colon cancer is discovered in its early stages, it's usually curable.

What is it?

Colorectal cancer begins in your colon or rectum, the part of your body's digestive system that stores waste until it passes out of the body. Benign (not cancerous) polyps in the colon or rectum are not uncommon. They are usually harmless and often discovered during screenings. However, some polyps have the potential to become cancerous. Unlike many cancers, colon cancer usually grows slowly. It can reside in your body in a highly curable state for up to 10 years.

Screening methods

Talk to your physician about which test is best for you. The American Cancer Society recommends regular screenings begin at age 50.

  • Digital rectal exam: Your doctor inserts a gloved finger into the rectum to feel for anything abnormal. It can detect some rectal cancers.

  • Fecal occult blood test: A stool sample is examined for blood. However, not all cancers bleed and those that do often bleed intermittently. So, doctors often recommend others screenings in addition to or instead of this one.

  • Sigmoidoscopy (sig-moi-DOS-kuh-pee): A slender, flexible, hollow, lighted fiber-optic tube is placed into the rectum. This allows the physician to look at the inside of the rectum and part of your colon for cancer or polyps.

  • Colonoscopy (ko-lon-OS-kuh-pee): Your doctor inserts a colonoscope, a long, flexible, lighted tube about the size of a finger through the rectum into the colon. It is connected to a video camera and monitor so your physician can look closely at the full length of your colon. If a polyp is found, the doctor may remove it.

  • Barium enema: Barium sulfate, a chalky liquid, is given through the anus to partially fill the colon and contrast with its inner lining. Fluoroscopy and X-ray films are used to check for abnormalities.

Signs and symptoms

Colon cancer may have different warning signs depending on where in your colon it develops. Many people don't have symptoms until the cancer is quite advanced. Possible signs of a problem include: rectal bleeding, altered bowel habits, pencil-thin stools, abdominal cramps or pain, unexplained, persistent urges to have bowel movements, unexplained iron-deficient anemia, unexplained weight loss.

Risk factors

Doctors aren't sure what causes colon cancer, but studies have shown certain risk factors:

  • Age -- About 90 percent of people who develop colon cancer are over age 50.

  • Sex, race -- In the United States, men are at higher risk for colon cancer than women, and blacks are at higher risk than other racial groups.

  • Diet -- Colorectal cancer seems to be associated with a diet high in fat and calories.

  • Polyps -- You're at higher risk if you're prone to develop certain types of polyps.

  • Family history -- A close relative with colon cancer increases your risk.

  • Physical inactivity -- Moderate exercise reduces your risk.

  • Alcohol and smoking -- Smoking may increase your risk. Drinking alcohol (especially beer) appears to compound this risk.

  • Other intestinal conditions -- Ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease increase risk.

If you are over 50 and haven't done so, talk to your physician about risk factors and recommended screenings. Some of the screening tests are uncomfortable but generally not painful. Don't let fear of the screening prevent you from detecting colon cancer early -- when it is highly curable.

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