Colon cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in the U.S., and it’s also a cancer that’s highly preventable through screening.
If you are aged 50 or older, get screened for colon cancer. But for African-American men and women, the recommended age is 45. Why? Research proves that African Americans risk forming polyps (grape-like growths) sooner than other populations and this group is more likely to be diagnosed after the cancer has spread to other organs.
“Most screenings for colon cancer are normal, but in 20 percent of cases there may be polyps which are usually benign,” says Dr. Thomas Stahl, regional director for the MedStar Colorectal Surgery Program. “All polyps are sent to the lab for a biopsy (test) to determine if there are any cancerous cells.”
Colonoscopy- An Effective Screening Test
Colon cancer usually has no symptoms in its early stage and that’s why the screening is vital. The most effective screening tool is colonoscopy, but people avoid the test because of fear. The traditional bowel prep consists of drinking a four-liter bottle of solution and a liquid diet the day before the test. Adhering to the strict diet is critical to ensure the colon is entirely cleaned out.
“The prep has improved over the years,” says Dr. Mitesh Patel, a gastroenterologist with MedStar Washington Hospital Center. “You don’t have to drink as much liquid as before and we have incorporated Gatorade, which has electrolytes that help decrease nausea.”
Colorectal cancer almost always starts with a polyp - a small growth on the lining of the colon or rectum – that doctors can remove during a colonoscopy procedure.
“When a polyp is removed from the body, it no longer has the opportunity to grow and potentially spread,” says Dr. Patel. “Once we discover a polyp, the patient is put on a surveillance program, depending on the number of polyps discovered during the colonoscopy and the size.”
Clinical guidelines say that if a patient has two or fewer polyps, they don’t need another screening for five years. If an individual has three or more polyps, they need to get screened every 3 years.
In addition to the age guidelines, African- Americans and people with a family history of the disease are at a higher risk, so talk to your primary care provider about getting screened early. Don’t put the test off another day, be proactive and get screened!