In the United States, colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer-related death in both men and women. While colon cancer was previously much more common in older patients (those 50 and older), recently there has been a spike in the prevalence of colon cancer in younger patients. Colon cancer is treatable with a good success rate if discovered early, and the gold standard for screening when it comes to colon cancer is colonoscopy. Read on to learn about why you shouldn’t put off your colonoscopy, what the beginning symptoms of colon cancer are, and how to help prevent the disease.
When You Should Schedule a Screening
Because of the incidence of younger patients being diagnosed with colon cancer, in 2018 the American Cancer Society lowered the screening guidelines from age 50 to age 45 for both men and women. This means that most patients should schedule their first colonoscopy screening at age 45. However, some risk factors indicate you should likely get screened earlier. Those with a family history of colon cancer or polyps are more likely to develop colon cancer, and colorectal cancer is also more prevalent in those of African-American or Ashkenazi Jewish descent. A family history of inherited syndromes such as Lynch syndrome also puts you more at risk. If any of the above risk factors apply to you, talk to your doctor about a potential earlier screening.
One of the best things about colonoscopy is it not only screens for colon cancer, but doctors can remove potentially dangerous polyps during the colonoscopy procedure. Generally speaking, there are no out-of-pocket costs and colonoscopies are covered by insurance. However, it is best to always confer with your insurance company regarding your own health plan before scheduling an appointment.
Early Signs of Colon Cancer
Even if you don’t qualify for the above risk factors, if you show early warning signs of colon cancer or other gastrointestinal issues, it’s best to talk to your doctor right away about the symptoms you’re experiencing. Unfortunately, the beginning symptoms of colon cancer are also very similar to other GI problems and conditions, and patients are often misdiagnosed. It’s critical to follow up with your doctor regarding symptoms. Colon cancer caught in stage I or stage II has a 90 percent survival rate, while colon cancer in stage IV has a 12 percent survival rate. Early symptoms include:
- Diarrhea (though likely not at the same time as constipation)
- Changes in bowel habits (often abrupt)
- Blood in the stool
- Abdominal cramping
- Unexplained weight loss
These symptoms can also be indicative of other more common and less serious conditions. It’s dangerous to assume lingering symptoms are “just IBS”; it is important to note that if symptoms persist for more than a few days, contact your doctor immediately.
Preventing Colon Cancer
Colon cancer is in part genetic, but there are certain risk factors associated with colon cancer that can be addressed by behavioral or lifestyle changes. Being overweight or obese and leading a sedentary lifestyle is linked with colon cancer. Patients are advised to be mobile and exercise as much as possible, keeping their body mass index (BMI) within normal ranges. A healthy diet full of leafy greens and fiber is optimal.
Smoking and heavy or alcoholic drinking are also associated with the incidence of colon cancer. Patients are advised to quit smoking and to curtail alcohol consumption. Having too much red and processed meat in the diet is also linked to colon cancer, especially in women. Not only do these lifestyle and behavioral changes help prevent colon cancer, but they will also help you feel better overall. Your doctor is there to support you if you need help with smoking cessation, quitting alcohol, or losing weight. For more information about colonoscopy or to schedule your first screening, request an appointment with Dr. Sameer Islam, MD today. Dr. Islam also offers several weight loss procedures that can help patients get down to their target weight.