March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month and a great time to talk about colon cancer screening, prevention, and treatment. Colon cancer is the second leading cause of death from cancer among men and women in the United States. There are 136,000 estimated new cases of colon cancer diagnosed every year and about 50,000 colon cancer deaths reported annually.
This is an alarming number considering colorectal cancer (CRC) is preventable, curable, and treatable! Approximately 75 to 90 percent of CRC cases can be avoided through early detection with regular colon cancer screening. The lifetime risk of colorectal cancer is estimated at one in 20 people, and is equal among men and women. CRC is most common after the age of 50, but can occur in younger ages in those with a strong family history of CRC and this risk increases with age.
A colonoscopy is recommended for all individuals with average risk of developing CRC over the age of 50, and in African Americans over the age of 45. Individuals at higher than average risk of developing CRC include those with:
- Personal or family history of CRC or colon polyps.
- Strong family history cancer.
- A history of chronic conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease and Ulcerative colitis).
Most individuals with early CRC have no symptoms, therefore screening is very important. Patients that experience the onset of symptoms like new abdominal pain, blood in stool, or changes in bowel habits should seek immediate attention from their primary care provider or gastroenterologist.
CRC develops from polyps, which are abnormal growths in the colon. CRC is preventable because screening tests can detect pre-cancerous polyps, and then they can be removed before they turn into cancer. CRC screening guidelines from the American College of Gastroenterology (ACG) divides the CRC screening options into cancer prevention tests and cancer detection tests. The preferred CRC prevention test is a colonoscopy every 10 years and the preferred CRC detection test is a fecal immune histochemical test (FIT) annually that detects hidden blood in stool. Other alternatives to the above mentioned tests include a CT or ‘virtual’ colonoscopy every 10 years, a flexible sigmoidoscopy every 5 years, or a Fecal DNA testing every 3 years.
Individuals can reduce their risk of colorectal cancer by avoiding smoking, avoiding excessive alcohol intake, increasing their fiber intake by eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, and having a diet low in red meats and fatty foods.
This article was written by Jagrati Mathur, MD, a gastroenterologist with Dignity Health Medical Group – Saint Francis/St. Mary’s.
Dr. Mathur is currently accepting new patients. Please visit DHMF.org/SanFrancisco or call 415.379.2980 to learn more or make an appointment.