March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month, a time to raise awareness of colorectal cancer to help save lives. Colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in women in the United States, and the second leading cause of death in men. In 2013, the latest year data was provided, Kentucky ranked fourth in the nation for colorectal cancer deaths, according to the Colon Cancer Prevention Project.
Colorectal cancer is treatable if caught early through screening, which is why Saint Joseph Berea, part of KentuckyOne Health, is encouraging community members to learn the options available for detecting the disease early-on.
“Individuals in the early stages of colon cancer, or with precancerous polyps, often do not experience symptoms,” said Matthew Miller, MD, KentuckyOne Health Gastroenterology Associates. “This is why regular screenings are critical to catching cancer and vital to prevention.”
Colorectal cancer refers to cancer that starts in either the colon or the rectum. The cancer is often slow-developing and typically begins with a polyp – a growth tissue that starts in the lining. At least 60 percent of deaths from this cancer could be avoided if those 50 years or older had regular screening tests, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). When detected early, the five-year survival rate for colon cancer is 90 percent.
While most people associate a colonoscopy with colon cancer, it is only one of many tests available to screen for the disease.
Stool Blood Test (Fecal Occult Blood Test)
This is an at-home kit where patients collect a stool sample and mail it to a lab for testing. If blood is found in the stool, a colonoscopy may be necessary so the physician can pinpoint the cause of bleeding, as blood in the stool can be a sign of cancer or polyps.
Stool DNA Test
In 2014, the FDA approved a non-invasive stool DNA test called Cologuard to check for colon cancer and rectal cancer. Those taking the test also use an at-home kit to collect a stool sample and mail it to a lab, which looks for blood in the stool, along with certain gene changes that could be a sign of cancer or pre-cancerous polyps. This test is available for those without a personal history of colon problems, colon or rectal cancer, or pre-cancerous polyps.
Colonoscopy, the most common method of screening, allows physicians to identify potential problem-causing polyps and remove them at the same time. A colonoscopy allows a physician to look at the entirety of the colon using a flexible scope with a camera attached. The exam usually takes 30 to 60 minutes and the patient is sedated. If no abnormalities are found and the individual is not at high risk for cancer, it can be repeated about every 10 years.
Flexible sigmoidoscopy is similar to a colonoscopy, but only looks at part of the colon and rectum. Sedation is typically not required with this screening option, but if polyps are found, they may be removed during the test. In some cases, a colonoscopy may also be needed to look at the entire colon. This test should be repeated every five years.
Double-Contrast Barium Enema
This X-ray test involves a physician placing a liquid called barium into the patient’s rectum. Air is pumped to help spread the liquid through the colon, and X-rays are then taken. A colonoscopy will be ordered if polyps or suspicious areas are found. This test should be repeated every five years.
This test helps the physician scan the colon and rectum, producing a larger group of images to look for polyps or cancer. During this test, air is pumped into the rectum and colon and a CT scanner takes images of the colon. If a biopsy is needed, a colonoscopy will have to be conducted. CT colonography should be repeated every five years.
The American Cancer Society currently recommends regular screening for colon cancer beginning at age 50. Risk factors for colon cancer include age, family history, inherited gene mutation, racial and ethnic background, type 2 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease and other associated syndromes. Obesity, smoking and heavy alcohol consumption are also linked to increased risk. Maintaining a healthy diet, regularly exercising, not smoking and limiting alcohol can reduce your risk of developing colon cancer.
“Some warning signs of colon cancer may include changes in bowel movements, blood in stool, abdominal discomfort, unexplained fatigue, loss of appetite, weight loss and pelvic pain,” said Dr. Miller. “However, those who are in the early stages of colorectal cancer often do not experience symptoms, so regular screenings can be critical to catching the cancer early.”
To schedule a colorectal cancer screening or to contact to a primary care physician about symptoms you may be experiencing, visit www.kentuckyonehealth.org/