Colorectal cancer screening is the key to beating the disease.
What does colorectal cancer screening mean?
It means looking for colon cancer or precancerous polyps in people who have no signs or symptoms. The benefits of screening are to prevent the painful suffering and death by colorectal cancer.
Who, me? Yes, you!
Why you? Because you are like everybody else. We are all at risk of getting colorectal cancer.
One in 20 people, men and women, will get colorectal cancer if not prevented. That’s 150,000 new cases per year, and 50,000 of those people will die from it. That’s more than in car accidents!
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, colon cancer is one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers and the second leading cancer killer in the United States.
Colorectal cancer is preventable, treatable and beatable.
Abnormal growths, called polyps, can begin to grow in the colon. Polyps can become cancerous over time. Colon cancer screening tests can find and remove polyps before they become cancerous. If cancer develops, it is important to catch it early when treatment is most effective. Men and women ages 50 to 75 years should get colon cancer screenings. The American Cancer Society thinks you should start at age 45. Furthermore, if you are very healthy at 75, you should keep getting screened until 85 years of age.
Colorectal cancer risk
There are certain things that may put you at a higher risk for developing colorectal cancer and may need to be screened earlier and more frequently:
• If you have a personal history or a family history of polyps or colon cancer;
• If you have chronic ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease;
• If you have a genetic syndrome that predisposes you such as Lynch Syndrome — where your close relatives have a clustering of cancers like uterine, bladder, pancreatic and breast cancer. It’s important to know your family history
You can lower your risk for colorectal cancer by eating healthy, exercising and maintaining a healthy weight. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation, and don’t smoke.
Unfortunately, colorectal cancer may not cause symptoms, especially during early stages. It’s a silent killer. Although there could be an early warning sign, such as:
• Blood in stool;
• Stomach pain that does not go away;
• Change in bowel movement habits — diarrhea or constipation;
• Narrowing of the stool.
If you have these signs or symptoms, you should contact your health care provider.
Types of screening tests
There are different ways to screen for colon cancer. At-home stool tests, including fecal occult blood test and fecal immunochemical test, are done in the privacy of your own home. You collect the sample and send it to a doctor’s office or lab. These tests indicate if there is blood in your stool. If the test is positive for blood, a colonoscopy needs to be completed to determine the cause of the bleeding. FOBT and FIT are easy-to-use tests and do not require taking time off from work. They are done once a year.
Flexible sigmoidoscopy is a short scope and is really an obsolete test for colon cancer screening.
The best screening test is the colonoscopy. This procedure is completed at an ambulatory endoscopy center or in a hospital outpatient area where medicine is given to make you comfortable or put you to sleep during the test.
Any polyps found during the test can be removed. If the test results are normal, a colonoscopy can be done once every 10 years. If they are not normal and pre-cancerous polyps are found and removed, your doctor will order a follow-up colonoscopy every three to five years, depending what type and how many polyps were found.
No insurance? High co-pay or deductible?
If you do not have insurance, or have a high co-pay or deductible associated with your insurance, the Cancer Services Program of the Central Region can help. The Cancer Services Program is a statewide, grant-funded program that covers the cost of colorectal cancer screenings for those who are uninsured and underinsured. Men and women, 50 years of age and older, can get free FIT kits once a year to screen for colorectal cancer. If the FIT kit test results show blood in the stool, the Cancer Services Program will also pay for follow-up testing. In the event that colon cancer is diagnosed, uninsured individuals may be eligible for the Medicaid Cancer Treatment Program. Call 1-888-345-0225 for more information or to enroll.
Keep in mind that more than half of deaths from colon cancer could be prevented with regular screening. If you are 50 and older, or younger than 50 with an increased risk, please talk to your health care provider about which colon cancer screening test is right for you. Colon cancer is preventable. Please get screened!
Dr. Charles Casale is chief of the Division of Digestive Diseases for Bassett Medical Center in Cooperstown.