Colon cancer may seem like a disease that affects the older population, but over the past few years, there has been a surprising trend of more and more young people being diagnosed with colon cancer. Knowing a little bit more about screening and how to prevent colon cancer can be a great help in preventing the disease, or catching it in its earliest stages. Read on to learn more about habits and lifestyle choices you should avoid and when you should first be screened.
What Is Colon Cancer?
Colon cancer involves cancer of the large intestine, which is also known as the colon. You may hear the terms “colon cancer” and “colorectal cancer” used interchangeably; however, colorectal cancer can also refer to rectal cancer as well as colon cancer (or it can also refer to both). Colon cancer and rectal cancer share many of the same features, so this is why the term is often used similarly.
Colon cancer first begins as polyps in the colon or rectum. There are several polyp types, and not all types are cancerous or precancerous. However, precancerous and cancerous polyps grow into the wall of the colon over time, which allows the cancer to spread. Colon cancer can also metastasize and spread to other organs in later stages.
Colon Cancer Screenings
Several years ago, it was common to inform a patient that their first colon cancer screening should begin at age 50, and most insurance policies still begin coverage at 50. However, with the recent incidence of younger people being diagnosed with the disease, the American Cancer Society officially lowered its guidelines in May 2018 to age 45 for both men and women. If you are in your 40s, thinking about scheduling your first colonoscopy should be on your mind. However, some patients should have their first screening even earlier. Each individual should know their personal risk that could affect screening schedules: family history, personal medical history, and recognizable symptoms.
Knowing your family medical history is crucial when it comes to colon cancer screening. If a first-degree relative has a history of colonic cancers, polyps, or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), you should let your physician know immediately. This can put you at higher risk for developing colon cancer at a younger age, and your doctor may recommend screening in your early 40s or 30s – or even in your 20s. Personal history of IBD as well as personal and family history of diabetes are also considered risk factors. Additionally, some inherited syndromes, such as Lynch syndrome and familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP), put you at higher risk.
Factors You Can Change and Those You Can’t
In addition to family history of disease, there are other risk factors for colon cancer you cannot change. Those of Ashkenazi Jewish and African-American ancestry are more predisposed to colon cancer. Also, age is an unchangeable factor. Those older than 50 are more likely to be diagnosed. However, there are definite risk factors you can change. Being overweight or obese is strongly linked to the development of colon cancer. Physicians suggest a high-fiber diet with fruits and vegetables, along with moderate physical activity each week. Unsurprisingly, a sedentary lifestyle is linked with colon cancer.
Smoking and heavy or alcoholic drinking are also linked with colon cancer, and patients are advised to quit smoking and to drink in moderation or not drink at all. Studies have also indicated a diet high in red meat content is linked to colon cancer.
Symptoms You Shouldn’t Ignore
Part of the problem with colon cancer is that signs don’t typically produce until the later stages. The chances of survival from stage I through stage IIIb colon cancer are well to moderate; as patients enter stage IIIc, IV, and V, the five-year survival rate plummets. Part of why screening is so essential is because a colonoscopy will detect colon cancer before symptoms occur.
However, no matter your age, symptoms shouldn’t be ignored. Colon cancer symptoms may mimic those of other gastrointestinal problems, so if you experience any of the following with regularity, you should contact your physician:
- Sudden changes in bowel habits that do not go away (such as frequent diarrhea, constipation)
- Abdominal cramping
- Unexplained weight loss
- Extreme fatigue, even during the day
- Blood in the stool
Colorectal cancer often has a higher morbidity rate in younger patients because symptoms like these are waved off or ignored. If colon cancer is in the earlier stages it is highly treatable, and a colonoscopy, which is the gold standard for screening, can not only detect polyps in the colon and rectum; it can also remove them. Talking to your doctor about your GI upset and bowel habits is imperative for your health.
If you’re experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms or want to schedule a screening for colon cancer, request an appointment with Dr. Sameer Islam, MD for both honest and professional care. Early screenings and preventive measures can go a long way in the prevention of colorectal cancer.