Colorectal cancer is a stealthy disease. It can begin unnoticed in your colon or rectum. By the time you develop symptoms, it has grown and possibly spread, making it harder to treat. Screening can help spot this cancer early.
Your screening options
Colonoscopy is the most commonly used screening tool. A doctor looks at the entire rectum and colon for signs of cancer with a colonoscope—a flexible, lighted tube with an attached camera. He or she can even remove precancerous growths called polyps during the procedure.
Unfortunately, some people may avoid a colonoscopy because it requires a lengthy process to clean out the colon before the procedure. In fact, they may pass up colorectal cancer screening altogether. Other screening options are available, though. These include:
- A fecal occult blood test: A lab scans a stool sample for blood, a possible sign of cancer.
- Sigmoidoscopy: This procedure is similar to a colonoscopy, but it looks only at the rectum and the lower colon.
- Barium enema: A series of X-rays highlight any problems in the colon and rectum.
- Virtual colonoscopy: A CT scan supplies detailed images of the colon.
Each screening test has benefits and risks. If you are age 50 or older, talk with your doctor to find out which option is right for you. No matter your choice, screening can save your life.
Frequency of screenings
Frequency of screenings depends on a number of factors, including:
- the screening method
- your personal and family history of colorectal cancer and polyps
- if there was a finding in a less invasive test – frequency of screenings is best discussed with your physician
What are the symptoms of colorectal cancer?
People who have any of the following symptoms should check with their doctors, especially if they are over 50 years old or have a personal or family history of the disease:
- A change in bowel habits such as diarrhea, constipation, or narrowing of the stool that lasts for more than a few days
- Rectal bleeding, dark stools, or blood in the stool
- Cramping or gnawing stomach pain
- Decreased appetite
- Unintended weight loss
- Weakness and fatigue
- A feeling that you need to have a bowel movement that is not relieved by doing so
What are the risk factors for colorectal cancer?
Risk factors may include:
- Age – most people who have colorectal cancer are over age 50; however, it can occur at any age.
- Race and ethnicity – African-Americans have the highest risk for colorectal cancer of all racial groups in the U.S. Jews of Eastern European descent (Ashkenazi Jews) have the highest colorectal cancer risk of any ethnic group in the world.
- Diet – colorectal cancer is often associated with a diet high in red and processed meats.
- Personal history of colorectal polyps – benign growths on the wall of the colon or rectum are common in people over age 50, and may lead to colorectal cancer.
- Personal history of colorectal cancer – people who have had colorectal cancer have an increased risk for another colorectal cancer.
- Family history – people with a strong family history of colorectal cancer or polyps in a first-degree relative (especially in a parent or sibling before the age of 45 or in two first-degree relatives of any age) have an increased risk for colorectal cancer.
- Ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease.
- Inherited syndromes, such as familial adenomatous polyposis or hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer, also known as Lynch syndrome
- Physical inactivity.
- Heavy alcohol consumption.
- Type 2 diabetes.