March is National Colon Cancer Awareness Month. If you or a loved one is 50 years or older, and you have not had a colonoscopy, now is the time. The CDC reports that if everyone 50 years old or older were screened regularly, as many as 60 percent of deaths from colon cancer could be avoided.
Colorectal cancer is the number two cancer killer in the United States. It is most common in those older than 50, but can strike at younger ages, particularly in the African American population.
Your physician should recommend a colonoscopy screening at age 50 - or age 45 for African Americans - and every 10 years following the initial screening. Frequently, colorectal cancer can manifest without symptoms. Without yearly cancer detection screening, such as a new test referred to as the "FIT" test, or the 10-year cancer prevention screening colonoscopy, colon cancer may go undetected and undiagnosed. Unfortunately, this leads to poor outcomes for treatment and cure.
The American College of Gastroenterology's list of symptoms to be aware of include new onset of abdominal pain or cramping, blood in the stool, a change in the caliber or shape of the stool, or a change in typical bowel habits, such as constipation or diarrhea. A low blood count or anemia can be cause for concern and investigation should include testing to rule out colon cancer. Additionally, unexplained weight loss should also be evaluated.
Colonoscopy is recommended for individuals of any age who are at higher than average risk for developing colorectal cancer by virtue of:
- Personal history of colorectal cancer or colorectal polyps.
- A strong family history of the disease.
- Inherited forms of colorectal polyps or cancer.
- Predisposing chronic digestive condition such as inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis.
Unfortunately, ageism can sometimes hinder the diagnosis of this potentially deadly disease. The typical colorectal cancer is found in those 50 or older 90 percent of the time. Physicians may dismiss symptoms in younger patients because colon cancer is often considered a cancer affecting the older population. Similarly, symptoms in the oldest of the population may be dismissed as the maladies accompanying old age.
It is imperative for us all, as consumers of health care, to advocate for ourselves and ask for screening and preventive testing, if not offered by our physicians. Colorectal cancer screening tests can find precancerous polyps so they can be removed before they develop into cancer. Screening tests also can find colorectal cancer early, leading to better outcomes and increased cure rates.
While screening tests are important for early detection, prevention and lifestyle choices are equally as important. Reducing the risk for colon cancer can be achieved by following the same guidelines for a healthy heart. These guidelines include the following choices:
- Eat fruits and vegetables and get plenty of fiber in your diet.
- Avoid red meat, limiting consumption to no more than twice a week.
- Consume a diet high in anti-oxidants.
- Avoid binge drinking, stop smoking, exercise daily and maintain a healthy weight.
- In addition, some sources advocate drinking green tea and taking low dose aspirin in order to decrease your risk.
Taking the time to get proper testing can lead to better outcomes and save lives. You can start by calling your physician to schedule an appointment for a colonoscopy if you have not yet had one and you are 50 years or older.