Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths among men and women combined. However, there are tests that can detect colon cancer in its earlier stages or even prevent the cancer from developing.
Those with heightened risk factors should consider getting screened prior to standard age recommendations.
Key Risk Factors
According to Dr. Peter Brennan, a gastroenterologist at Cayuga Medical Center, the primary risk factor is simply age. “Colon cancer doesn’t differentiate between the sexes or races to any significant degree, so we look at age first,” he explains. “The traditional ‘milestone’ for being concerned is age 50, but we are seeing an increase of cancer in younger individuals.”
Meat consumption raises risk slightly, but Dr. Brennan warns that vegetarians do not get a free pass. Individuals who abstain from animal consumption may benefit from a decreased risk of 20-30 percent, but this reduction is not enough to eliminate screening. Maintaining a healthy weight also lowers one’s risk.
Colonoscopy: Gold Standard of Screening
Colonoscopy has long been considered the gold standard of screening procedures. The age of recommendation currently sits at 50, although some healthcare professionals would like to see that moved to younger. The goal is to discover precursor lesions to cancer, called polyps, and remove them before they have a chance to grow.
“I often use the analogy of removing little seedlings before they turn into saplings, and again before they turn into mature trees—the mature tree being full-fledged cancer,” says Dr. Brennan. “Colonoscopy, while I admit can be somewhat inconvenient, uniquely identifies the first stages and prevents the cancer from forming.”
Other established screening techniques are designed to pick up cancers which have already formed, targeted for the later stage of the disease progression.
Colonoscopy Prep: Tips to Ease the Process
Legendary horror stories of colonoscopy preparation don’t have to be horrific in reality if you prepare with some simple steps. Adjust your diet a few days prior by not eating heavy roughage like granola or items with large seeds. On the day prior to the procedure, restrict to liquids only.
Fortunately, advances have allowed for “split-dosing,” which means patients ingest half of the prep liquid in the evening and the remainder in the morning. This “rest” period not only eases the patient experience, but it also allows the second half to work better, per Dr. Brennan.
Symptoms & Diagnosis: Don’t Ignore the Signs
Bleeding is the most indicative symptom of pre-cancer and cancer. However, just because bleeding occurs, it doesn’t necessarily mean one is on that path—hemorrhoids may also be to blame. Still, any bleeding should be discussed with a primary care physician and investigated.
As for diagnosis, once a colonoscopy has been completed, a pathologist reviews the developed specimen. A CAT scan may be required as a follow-up, with the last step towards diagnosis occurring via a surgical specimen.
Of course, the best case scenario is to never get to that point. “I have to say, we’re doing a whole lot less surgery now than we used to, because colonoscopy has been well accepted and has made a big impact,” states Dr. Brennan. “Remember, your primary care doctor—and we as gastroenterologists—sleep better at night knowing you’ve been fully screened.”
To learn more about colorectal screening at Cayuga Medical Center, visit www.cayugamedicalassociates.org.
**To listen to an interview with Dr. Peter Brennan, a gastroenterologist at Cayuga Medical Center, follow this link: https://radiomd.com/cayuga/item/38292