22 August 2019
Early detection through colonoscopy or other methods can identify cancer before it spreads to other parts of the body. Photo: Reuters
Early detection through colonoscopy or other methods can identify cancer before it spreads to other parts of the body. Photo: Reuters

Five things you need to know about colon cancer screenings

According to the American Cancer Society, improvements in prevention, detection and treatment have helped more than a million people in the United States overcome colon and rectum cancer, also known as colorectal cancer. In honor of Colon Cancer Awareness Month in March, here are five things that make colon cancer screening invaluable.

1. Screening is important because of how colon cancer develops.

It begins when polyps (abnormal tissue growths) that later become cancerous, and screening can help identify polyps before they get to that stage. If a polyp has already become cancerous, early detection can identify cancer before it spreads to other parts of the body.

Colonoscopy is the current standard but not the only method of screening. Jill Allen, MD, clinical director of gastrointestinal oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital, says: “Other options include computed tomographic colonography (CTC), fecal immunochemistry stool testing (FIT), flexible sigmoidoscopy, multitargeted fecal DNA and guaiac-based fecal occult blood (gFOBT). You should talk with your physician about the procedure that is best for you.”

2. Most people start getting screened at age 50 with a few caveats.

Dr. Allen says “if you have additional risk factors like a family history of colon cancer, polyps or a genetic syndrome in the family”, you should talk with your doctor to determine when to start screening for colon cancer.

3. The short-term discomforts of screening are worth the potential long-term benefits.

There’s no sugar-coating it. Colonoscopies can be unpleasant. To many patients, the worst part is the pre-screening process which often can involve odd-tasting formulas and a high number of bowel movements to cleanse the bowel.

The doctor will examine the colon using a flexible tube about the width of a finger with a camera inside. This is called a colonoscope and it is inserted into the patient’s rectum. Most polyps can be removed through colonoscopy, eliminating the growth before it becomes malignant. Patients are usually sedated and may not remember the procedure after it’s done. And the side effects, ranging from stomach cramps to gassiness, are typically mild. However, a couple days of discomfort is a small price to pay for something that might just save your life.

4. Anyone could develop colon cancer, but there are certain high-risk factors:

• Being over 50 years old.

• A diet high in animal fats and low in fruits and vegetables.

• A personal or family history of colon cancer.

• Obesity.

• Alcohol and/or tobacco consumption.

• Race – research suggests African-Americans and Hispanics are at greater risk.

• Having inflammatory bowel disease.

5. Early detection can be a literal lifesaver.

Addressing colon cancer early gives doctors more options for treatments and often leads to higher survival rates. A person with colon cancer may be experiencing noticeable symptoms, but that is not always the case. Because of that, getting screened at the proper time is immensely important.

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More health and well-being tips from MassGeneral Hospital experts:

Understanding why exercise works for just about everything

Safe-sleep recommendations for infants

A healthy heart for all ages

New study finds low-dose aspirin may lower risk of cancer death

Six things you should know about male infertility

Most people start getting screened at age 50, but those with additional risk factors such as family history should ask their doctor when to start getting screened for colon cancer. Photo: Reuters

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