While colon cancer (also referred to as colorectal cancer) or awareness of colon cancer has not been in the news as much as some other types of cancer (such as breast cancer), it is one of the deadliest and most prevalent cancers that exist.
In fact, it is the second-leading cause of cancer death in the United States, second only to lung cancer. While the most prevalent type of cancer diagnosed in the United States is skin cancer, the risk for morbidity or death is not nearly as high when compared to other types of cancer.
In fact, you may be shocked to hear that colon cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death, because it’s simply not mentioned very often in health news. According to statistics, 140,000 new cases of colorectal cancer will be diagnosed in the new year, and roughly 56,000 people will lose their battle with the disease.
One of the main reasons that colon cancer is so deadly is because it is essentially an invisible killer. You can look up symptoms for nearly every type of disease, diagnosis, or illness on the internet, and are provided with a laundry list of items to look out for. For example, breast cancer symptoms include lumps or sore breasts; symptoms of bipolar disorder include rapid mood swings; symptoms of liver disease include jaundice. By the time a patient experiences symptoms as they relate to a case of colorectal cancer, it is too likely too late and the cancer has already progressed to a later stage of the disease (such as stage 4 or stage 5).
Because symptoms are nearly undetectable, prevention is the key. However, in recent years the cases of colon cancer in younger patients (in their 30s, 40s, and 50s) has been rising exponentially. Unfortunately, researchers are not quite sure why, and the only way to prevent this is to be tested for colon cancer. The most common way to check for colorectal cancer is to have a colonoscopy.
In previous years, most cancer and research organizations had advised that all patients (men and women alike) receive their first colonoscopy at the age of 50. Earlier this year, in May 2018, the American Cancer Society took it a step further and stated that men and women should have their first colorectal cancer screening by the age of 45. It is expected that, within a few years, more and more medical guidelines will follow this route and the advice. The one detrimental part of this piece is the fact that most insurance companies are turning a blind eye to these new guidelines. It’s unfortunate that, while the American Cancer Society feels you should have your first colonoscopy at age 45, your insurance company likely will not pay for it until the age of 50. If you’re concerned about your risk factors, one of the best ways to deal with this is to talk to your insurance company about the problem.
However, to go back to the beginning, there are some symptoms of colorectal cancer that should be discussed. This is in part because not all patients develop colon cancer without symptoms, and if you feel something is wrong with your body, the best thing to do is to speak up and tell your doc.
One of the most important things to look for is blood in the stool. This may sound like a difficult task, but it’s wise to simply check your stool once in a while. There is such a condition as “invisible” blood in the stool, which can lead to colorectal cancer, but this is a test that only your doctor can order and perform. If you see visible blood in the stool, call your doctor immediately. If you have a sudden change in bowel habits, this is another important thing to take note of. Also, if sudden changes in bowel are accompanied with gas pains, diarrhea, constipation, or other GI upset, you should let your doctor know. Other symptoms include fatigue, especially at odd times of the day or night, and weight loss for no known reasons.
Now, the above symptoms can be symptoms of many different problems, and in the winter time, they could even be indicative of a “stomach bug” or symptoms that accompany a cold. If you feel that these types of symptoms are staying with you for longer than two weeks, especially blood in the stool or rectal bleeding, it’s time for a consultation.
It’s also a good idea to know if you’re at risk for colorectal cancer. One of the best things you can do for your health is to arm yourself with your family’s medical history. If there is a history of colorectal cancer in your family, you are 50 percent more likely to have a colon cancer diagnosis also. In addition, some certain ethnicities have a greater risk, including African-Americans and Hispanics. Those who have a history of ovarian, endometrial, or breast cancer in the family are also at higher risk. If you are worried about any of the above risks, it’s always wise to sit down with your doctor.
Researchers have concluded that certain behaviors and habits do put you at higher risk for contracting colon cancer as well, regardless of your ethnicity. Just recently, red and processed meat has had strong ties to colon cancer, especially cases in younger (40s-50s) women. One of the best things you can do is to limit red meat and processed meat consumption. For most, this is an easy switch, simply by adding more poultry, fish, and other protein into the diet.
Also, heavy drinking also has a strong correlation with colorectal cancer in both genders. On the opposite side, light drinking is correlated with the prevention of colon cancer. So what does this mean? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise that a male only have one to two drinks per day, not to exceed seven in a week. For females, one should not imbibe more than one drink per day, or four in a single week. While it can be difficult to match these guidelines to the letter, it’s important to make sure you don’t consume too much alcohol. Colorectal cancer is not the only health risk that heavy drinking contributes to.
While smoking is more correlated with lung cancer, smoking has also been highly correlated with cases of colon cancer in both men and women. All patients that smoke are advised to quit as soon as possible. If you can’t quit, there are many programs, medications, and other tools out there to help you break the habit for good.
One of the last health risks connected to colorectal cancer is not getting enough exercise. While your doctor likely preaches to you the importance of a healthy diet and enough exercise, not following this advice does put you at risk for colon cancer, in addition to many other different cancers and diseases. Try to stay active every day, with at least three to five sessions of moderate exercise (45 minutes per sessions) per week.
Colonoscopy is not the only way to have a colorectal cancer screening, and it’s a good idea to know what your options are, particularly if you are a high-risk patient. In addition to colonoscopy, doctors can also perform fecal occult blood testing to check for blood in the stool. This test will also check for the aforementioned “invisible blood,” which can be indicative of colorectal cancer. Sometimes this blood test is an important first step toward a colorectal cancer screening. A flexible sigmoidoscopy can also be performed. This is a simple test that can be done right in your doctor’s office. It is simply a visual examination of the lower portion of the colon and the rectum.
Another test that can help check for colorectal cancer includes double contrast barium enema. This is also known as a barium X-ray and can also be performed right in the doctor’s office. Yep another test is a virtual colonoscopy, which is essentially a CT scan. It is less invasive than the standard colonoscopy but can also be an expensive test. If your insurance company will not cover an early colonoscopy, likely they will cover one of these other tests, such as barium X-ray or fecal occult blood test. If these tests show signs of possible colorectal cancer or polyps, then your insurance company is likely to go through with insurance coverage for the colonoscopy.
Like avoiding many other diseases and conditions, prevention is worth an ounce of cure when it comes to colon cancer. The best advice is to stop bad habits (red meat, smoking, drinking) now, before you incur health problems. Remember that colon cancer can be a silent killer with no symptoms, so it’s best to take care of your body and have regular checkups performed. If you are apprehensive or worried about colon cancer, even if you are a younger patient, the best thing to do is to share your concerns with your doctor so he or she can order the proper tests.
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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this post are the personal views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of PatientNextDoor. Any omissions or errors are the author’s and PatientNextDoor does not assume any liability or responsibility for them.