Health Matters: Nobody is Excited About Colon Cancer Screening
Remember when 50 seemed old? It’s funny how our perspective changes as we age. As young as we may feel at 50, it is an age that marks a shift into the next phase of life, an age where our risk increases for certain health conditions—and one of those is colon cancer. I can safely say I’ve never met anyone who was excited to get their first colon cancer screening, which for most people is recommended at age 50, but let me tell you why it’s worth doing.
According to the American Cancer Society, colon cancer is the third most common type of cancer for both men and women (not counting skin cancers). If you think back to elementary school, chances are that someone in your kindergarten class will get colon cancer in their lifetime, because the incidence rate is about 1 in 24. This year alone, more than 100,000 new cases will likely be diagnosed, and approximately 53,000 Americans will probably pass away from colon cancer complications. For perspective, that’s like every single person in Mendocino County getting diagnosed and more than half of them dying. I share this not to stress you out, but to let you know how common and how dangerous colon cancer can be. The good news is that colon cancer is preventable and, if caught early, treatable.
The colon, also known as the large intestine, is the final part of the digestive tract. As we age, it’s not uncommon to develop polyps, little clumps of cells, in the walls of the colon. Left untreated, those polyps can become cancerous and by the time people are having noticeable symptoms, the cancer has often progressed. So the best course of action is to get screened, and there are three ways to do so.
The gold standard is the colonoscopy, which involves emptying the bowels the night before and then being sedated while a doctor uses a flexible scope through the rectum to identify any polyps or lesions. The prep is usually the worst part. It involves drinking a powerful laxative to induce diarrhea for several hours before the procedure. Because patients are sedated during the colonoscopy, the procedure itself is not painful. A clear colonoscopy typically means you don’t have to go back for another screening for ten years.
Since a lot of people are avoiding going out in the middle of a pandemic, and I applaud that behavior, allow me to share a few other options for colon cancer screening that can be done from home.
Cologuard is a non-invasive screening. It involves capturing an entire stool sample, start to finish, for DNA testing to identify genetic markers that put the patient at heightened risk for colon cancer. The test is done at home and mailed in for results that are available about two weeks later. With negative results, the Cologuard screening should be repeated every three years.
FIT (STOOL SAMPLE TEST)
The third option is a fecal immunochemical test (FIT). It screens for blood in your stool, which can be an early sign of cancer. FIT can detect even microscopic amounts human blood from the lower intestines. Patients who use a FIT must get one every year starting at age 50, unless the test comes back positive, in which case a colonoscopy is required.
PAY ATTENTION TO CHANGES IN YOUR BODY
It’s important to note that you don’t have to be 50 or older to get colon cancer. Anyone can get it. If you have a family history, you should get screened 10 years before the age when your family member was diagnosed. So, if your father got colon cancer at age 50, you should get screened at age 40. If you have any changes in your bowel movements (i.e., size, caliber, consistency, comfort) that last for more than a week or so, contact your medical provider. And trust your intuition (or your spouse’s intuition). It’s not uncommon cannot for people to say something “just didn’t seem right,” and to have their follow up lead to a diagnosis that saved their life.
Justin Ebert is the medical director at MCHC Health Centers, a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental and behavioral health care to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties.