Having this conversation that many find awkward can be a lifesaver
Discussing colorectal cancer can be a difficult conversation that could save your life – especially if you discuss the issue with your physician when you think you are too young to worry about the disease.
In Tompkins County with just over 100,000 residents, about 40 people are diagnosed with colorectal cancer each year, and about 15 people die from the disease. The rates are similar for nearby counties, and the nation. Nationally, Colorectal is the second most common cause of cancer death.
The good news is that there have been major reductions in the incidence of colorectal cancer and death from colorectal cancer over the past 30 years, particularly for those 55 and older. Through cancer screening and removing pre-cancerous polyps, half has many people are diagnosed with colon cancer today as in 1970. Also, when early-stage colon cancer is found on a screening colonoscopy, 90% of patients are cured.
But for those younger than 50, the disease is a growing health concern. The incidence of colon cancer is rising in younger patients. Because of the rising incidence in younger people, the American Cancer Society now recommends that people at average risk of colorectal cancer start regular screening at age 45.
Timothy Bael, MD, director of the Cayuga Cancer Center, discusses colorectal cancer.
What is colorectal cancer?
Dr. Bael: It's a cancer that starts in the colon or rectum. The two are often grouped together because they have many features in common. Colorectal cancer affects men and women.
What causes colorectal cancer?
Dr. Bael: Most colorectal cancers begin as a growth in the inner lining of the colon or rectum called a polyp. Some types of polyps can change into cancer over several years, but not all polyps become cancer. Risk factors linked to colorectal cancer, a family history of colon cancer or other cancers, are obesity, a diet high in red and processed meats, smoking and heavy alcohol use. Lots of exercise, diets high in vegetables, fruits and whole grains appear to lower the risk of colorectal cancer.
What are colorectal cancer symptoms to watch for?
Dr. Bael: Some signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer include a change in bowel habits or narrowing of the stool; a feeling that you need to have a bowel movement that is not relieved by doing so; blood in the stool, which may make it look dark; cramping or abdominal pain; and unintended weight loss. Precancerous polyps and early-stage colorectal cancer do not always cause symptoms, which is why screening is important.
What are the screening tests?
Dr. Bael: There are two tests to find polyps or colorectal cancer for low-risk patients:
- A stool DNA test uses a stool sample to look for signs of colon cancer. The heavily advertised ColoGuard test is familiar to many patients, but other similar tests are available.
- Colonoscopy. A doctor will use a longer, thin, flexible, lighted tube to check for polyps or cancer inside the rectum and the entire colon. Frequency: every 10 years.
What else does a colonoscopy check for?
Dr. Bael: Besides being a test for early detection and prevention of colorectal cancer, a colonoscopy is also effective in the diagnosis and/or evaluation of various GI disorders, including diverticulosis and inflammatory bowel disease.
If you need help to arrange a colorectal cancer screening, call the Cayuga Cancer Center at (607) 272-5414 or the Cayuga Endoscopy Center at (607) 252-3620. For screening at Schuyler Hospital, call (607) 210-1968.