Nationwide, cancer is the second cause of death in America after cardiac diseases. It is estimated that over 125,000 men and women a year are diagnosed with colon and rectal cancer. Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death and takes the lives of approximately 50,000 people a year. A significant amount of these could be avoided, if everyone between the ages of 50 to 75 took preventative measures and had regular screening tests.

What is Colorectal Cancer?

It is cancer that occurs in the colon and rectum. The colon is also known as the large bowel or the large intestine. It is positioned after the small intestine and ends at the anus.

Colorectal cancer screenings can save lives. Most of colon and rectal cancer originates from polyps. Polyps are a small abnormal growth of the lining of the colon and the purpose of colorectal screening tests is to find those polyps so that they can be removed before they turn into cancer. If everybody had a colonoscopy as recommended, it is estimated that more than half of colon cancer could be prevented. When diagnosed, colon cancer can be cured if detected on time during a screening test.

A screening colonoscopy is recommended for both men and women starting at the age of 50 as preventative care. The main purpose of a colonoscopy is to identify, remove and analyze polyps to eliminate the potential risk of cancer. A colonoscopy may be recommended at an earlier age for the following reasons: a strong family history of colon cancer, diagnosis of an inflammatory bowel disease, or has a specific genetic condition predisposing to colon and rectal cancer.

What are the symptoms of Colorectal Cancer?

There may be no symptoms at first if a person has polyps or colorectal cancer. However, typically symptoms may include: blood in the stools, abdominal pain, anemia, change (shape or consistency) in bowel movements and/or unexplained loss of weight. If you or a loved one have any of these symptoms or are at high risk, talk to your doctor about having earlier or more frequent testing if you think you’re at risk of colorectal cancer.

Colon cancer is usually treated by surgical removal along with chemotherapy treatment if the cancer has spread to the surrounding lymph nodes. Laparoscopic technique is usually recommended and has the benefit of decreased post-operative pain and earlier hospital discharge. Rectal cancer on the other hand often requires radiation and chemotherapy before surgery.

Colorectal screening tests are normally covered by Medicare or most insurance plans. Check with your insurance to find out which tests are covered.

By Dominique Vande Maele M.D.