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Plan of Attack Against Colorectal Cancer

Recognizing early symptoms of colon cancer can lead to earlier treatment

A happy older couple shares a hug in an outdoor setting with palm trees visible in the background.

by Peter Reissmann, Oncologist

There are few things that strike fear into people’s hearts like the word cancer. This disease, caused by out-of-control cell growth, can be devastating.

But the simple fact about cancer is that the sooner it is found and treatment begins, the greater the chances are of living a healthy life for many years to come.

Aside from skin cancers, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in the United States. And, according to the American Cancer Society, more than 106,000 new cases of colorectal cancer will be diagnosed this year.

Understanding colorectal cancer

Colorectal cancer affects the rectum and colon, which are a part of your digestive system, which processing food for energy and eliminating waste from the body. Colon cancer and rectal cancer are commonly known as colorectal cancer because they have so many features in common. This type of cancer is often slow-growing and can begin as a non-cancerous growth known as a polyp in the colon or rectum.

Risk factors for colorectal cancer

People most at risk for this type of cancer are those who have a family history of the disease, a history of colorectal polyps, chronic inflammatory bowel disease, a diet high in animal derived proteins, physical inactivity, diabetes, high alcohol intake, smoking and obesity.

Some of these risk factors, such as family history or diabetes, are difficult to change. But others, such as inactivity and diet, can be altered. If you are a smoker, the single best thing you can do to significantly improve your health in almost every area is to quit.

Colonoscopy and other screening methods

The good news is that the rate of colorectal cancer has been steadily falling for the last 20 years. This can be attributed to better screening methods, such as a colonoscopy, which can detect polyps in the colon before they develop into cancer.

While some of the screening methods for colorectal cancer sound very unpleasant, they are highly effective at detecting possible cancer-causing conditions at a very early stage. I recommend that everyone begin a regular screening for this cancer at age 50. However, people with risk factors should talk to their physician about a screening schedule that may begin much earlier.

A colonoscopy is probably the best-known method of colorectal cancer screening. The procedure involves inserting a flexible, hollow, lighted tube into the colon.

This tool, which is connected to a video camera and display monitor, will allow your doctor to see the lining of your entire colon and look for irregularities or polyps. The procedure may cause discomfort, so most people are given a sedative before the procedure to help them stay pain-free. A flexible sigmoidoscopy is very similar to a colonoscopy, but it only looks at the lower part of your colon.

Other non-invasive tests include a fecal occult blood test, fecal immunochemical test, barium enema with air contrast and a virtual colonoscopy. Each of these procedures tests for possible cancer indicators such as blood in the stool and polyps. It’s important to talk to your doctor about which screening methods are best for you.

Symptoms of colorectal cancer

Some symptoms of colorectal cancer might include a change in bowel movements, blood in the stool, cramping or abdominal pain, and weakness or fatigue. Other conditions might also cause these symptoms, but only a licensed physician can determine their cause. It also is possible to have colon or rectal cancer with no symptoms.

Prevention considerations

While it’s not entirely clear whether cancer can be prevented, there are some anecdotal evidence that a healthy diet, especially one high in fiber, fruits and vegetables, along with regular exercise may help in the prevention of cancers. Studies suggest that daily supplements of vitamin D and calcium, along with a multi-vitamin containing folic acid, may help ward of cancerous changes.

As an oncologist, I know that many people avoid colorectal cancer screenings because they fear a diagnosis of cancer or because of embarrassment. I cannot stress enough that many cancers are highly treatable, and curable, if they are detected early. It is so important to participate in regular screenings recommended by your physician.

This Scripps Health and Wellness information was provided by Peter Reissmann, M.D., an oncologist at Scripps Mercy Hospital.