Screening is Your Best Protection
Colorectal cancer is the second most common cause of cancer death in the United States (after lung cancer). The number of deaths, however, has been declining for years, due in large part to advances in screening techniques.
Colorectal cancer refers to cancer that develops in the large intestine (colon) or lower portion of the large intestine (rectum) and is most often identified in adults over age 50. Like many cancers, it is most curable when detected at an early stage. A colonoscopy is a single test that is useful for the prevention of colorectal cancer as well as early detection.
Colonoscopy — the gold standard
At its earliest and most curable stage, colorectal cancer shows no symptoms. Because most colorectal cancers are known to develop from polyps, the initial goal of a colonoscopy is to detect and remove polyps before they become cancerous. A colonoscopy can also identify polyps that are cancerous, including those that have not yet invaded the colon wall or spread to lymph nodes. This offers the opportunity for curative surgery. Adults with an average risk of colorectal cancer are recommended to have a colonoscopy at age 50. If no polyps are found, they should repeat the test every 10 years.
During a colonoscopy, a physician uses a thin, lighted tube to view the lining of the rectum and colon. Any polyps that are discovered are removed and tested for malignancy. The patient is given a mild sedative prior to the procedure.
While colonoscopy is known as the “gold standard” for colorectal cancer screening because it can be used to identify and remove polyps, other methods are also available. Similar to a colonoscopy, a sigmoidoscopy allows polyp removal and detection of cancer in the lower left portion of the colon. Other screening methods include:
- CT colonoscopy (virtual colonoscopy) - using a CT scanner to take images of the entire bowel
- Double contrast barium enema - a detailed x-ray of the rectum and colon
- Stool tests - to detect blood or abnormal DNA in the stool
In addition, Lancaster General Health is one of the only regional hospitals to offer endoscopic ultrasound, which is an advanced diagnostic method used for precise pre-operative staging.
Symptoms of more advanced cancer include changes in bowel habits, rectal bleeding or anemia. Surgical removal of the affected area is often recommended in these cases. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy may also be recommended depending upon the specific progression of the cancer.
In 25% of colorectal cancer cases, there is a family history of cancer or polyps. Additionally, individuals with inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, have an increased risk of developing colorectal cancer. Men and women with hereditary risk of inflammatory bowel disease or colorectal cancer should be screened at an earlier age and more frequently than those at average risk.
Several lifestyle factors are known to increase the risk of developing colorectal cancer. These include a diet high in fat and red meat and low in fiber, a sedentary lifestyle and cigarette smoking. Your risk of colorectal cancer also increases with age. You should discuss with your physician the screening method and schedule that is most appropriate to your medical history and level of risk.
To find a gastroenterologist or to learn more, call 1-888-LGH-INFO or go to our Find A Doctor.