According to the American Cancer Society, colon cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer-related deaths in the United States. However, proper screening and early diagnosis can lead to improved colon cancer treatment outcomes.
One of the advantages of colon cancer screening is the detection of precancerous lesions. Most colon cancer begins as benign polyps, which develop slowly into cancer.
Colon polyps usually are harmless. However, when colon cancer does occur, it most often starts as a polyp that becomes malignant over time. So polyps are sometimes a cause for concern.
What are Polyps?
Polyps are extra tissue that grow on the lining of the large intestine or colon. Most cause no symptoms. Occasionally, they may lead to constipation, diarrhea or bleeding.
Sometimes, polyps grow larger over time. Fortunately, most polyps are not dangerous. Some polyps do eventually grow into colon cancer.
Who is at risk of developing polyps?
Those older than age 50 face a much higher risk of developing polyps than younger people. Having a polyp increases your risk of having others. You also may face a heightened risk for polyps if you have a family history of polyps or colon cancer.
Screening for Polyps
Doctors remove all polyps and test them for cancer. Experts advise everyone ages 50 and older to be tested for colon cancer and colon polyps. If you have a family history of colon polyps or colon cancer, your doctor may recommend earlier screening.
Testing for Colon Cancer
With proper screening, colon cancer can be detected before symptoms develop, when it is most curable.
A fecal occult blood test (FOBT) may detect small amounts of blood in the stool, which could suggest colon cancer. However, this test is often negative in patients with colon cancer. For this reason, an FOBT must be done along with imaging tests to screen and potentially diagnose colon cancer.
Tests include colonoscopy, which views the entire colon and is the best screening test for colon cancer, and sigmoidoscopy, which views up to the sigmoid colon. Also, your doctor may order blood tests, including a complete blood count (CBC) and liver function tests.
Colon Cancer Risk Factors
Colon cancer can develop for a variety of reasons. It is important to speak with your doctor about your individual risk.
- Age - Most colon cancers are diagnosed in men or women over age 50. Colon cancer affects both men and women.
- Family history - Your risk may increase if you have a parent, sibling or child with colon cancer or colon polyps.
- Personal history - If you have had colon cancer or adenomatous polyps (benign but may be precursor to colon cancer), your risk increases.
- Inflammatory intestinal conditions - Conditions like ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease, when the colon is inflamed over a period of time, can increase your risk.
- Genetics - Inherited genetic syndromes can increase susceptibility to colon cancer at a younger age. Familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) - a disease that causes development of thousands of polyps in the colon and rectal lining - and hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (HNPCC) - also called Lynch syndrome - are two such genetic syndromes that can be detected through genetic testing.
- Diabetes - Diabetics have an increased risk for developing colon cancer.
- Diet - A diet high in red meats, processed meats or fats - especially from animal sources - can increase your risk.
- Alcohol consumption - Heavy use of alcohol may increase your risk.
- Obesity - People who are obese have an increased risk of developing colon cancer and an increased risk of dying from it.
- Sedentary lifestyle - Physical inactivity increases your risk.
What are the Signs & Symptoms of Colorectal Cancer?
If you experience any of the following symptoms, the American Cancer Society recommends visiting a doctor to find the cause and receive treatment, if necessary:
- A change in bowel habits, such as diarrhea, constipation, or narrowing of the stool, which lasts for more than a few days
- A feeling that you need to have a bowel movement that is not relieved by doing so
- Rectal bleeding
- Dark stools, or blood in the stool
- Cramping or abdominal pain
- Weakness and fatigue
- Unintended weight loss
Colon Cancer Prevention
While nothing guarantees that you will not develop cancer, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk and stay healthy.
- Make healthy food choices.
- Diet high in whole grains, fruits and vegetables and low in red and processed meats.
- Limit processed foods, sweets and salt.
- Avoid foods high in saturated fats.
- Do not overeat. Watch portion size and calories.
- Get the recommended levels of calcium and vitamin D.
- Limit alcohol consumption. Limit the amount of alcohol - wine, beer or mixed drinks - to less than one drink per day, or avoid it completely.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Engage in regular physical activity (at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity each week throughout the week).
- Don't smoke.
- Get regular checkups and talk to your doctor about regular cancer screenings.
- Sedentary lifestyle - Physical inactivity increases your risk.
Colon Cancer Screening Saves Lives
Colon cancer is preventable and can be detected earlier due to screening. Six of every 10 colon cancer deaths could be prevented if all adults, ages 50 and older, were screened for the disease. Men and women of “average risk” who do not have any family history of cancer, should get periodic screening tests, such as a colonoscopy, beginning at age 50. Ask your doctor about the best screening test and schedule for you.
Time for a Colonoscopy?
At Memorial Hermann, you can schedule a screening colonoscopy online if you meet the following criteria*:
Schedule a colonoscopy online now
- You are 50 years of age or older
- You are African American and 45 years of age or older
- You are 40 years old or 10 years younger than the age at which a first-degree relative was diagnosed with colon cancer.
Colon Cancer Treatment
Colon cancer starts in the large intestine or the rectum, the end of the colon. Colon cancer treatment usually includes surgery.
Surgical procedures for colon cancer include:
- Resection is surgery to remove part or all of the organ containing the cancer and can involve the creation of an ostomy which is an opening from the colon to the surface of the body to function as an anus.
Less common procedures include:
- Fulguration, the use of an electric current to burn away the tumor using a special tool
- Cryosurgery, in which an instrument is used to freeze and destroy the abnormal tissue
- Radiofrequency ablation, which uses a special probe with tiny electrodes that release high-energy radio waves to kill the cancer cells
Chemotherapy is the standard treatment for locally advanced cancers and can be used in combination with radiation. If cancer has spread to distant organs, chemotherapy is the mainstay of therapy.
We use advanced radiation therapy technology to help patients fight cancer, which can lead to less scarring, shorter recovery times and a quicker return to productivity.
Clinical Trials and Research
As a teaching hospital affiliated with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center offers access to innovative treatments and technologies as soon as they are made available, whether in the development and testing phases, or after FDA approval. Patients who qualify also have the opportunity to participate in clinical trials of treatments that may not otherwise be available to them.
*No separate physician office visit is required in most cases. Other programs often require patients to see the GI physician before the colon screening. Typically, your insurance provider will cover the entire cost of the screening colonoscopy, but it is important that you contact them to understand your individual situation.