Colon Cancer: A Risk Worth Screening For

By Lukasz Kowalczyk, MD, Gastroenterologist

Breast cancer and lung cancer may receive a lot of attention from the public, but what many don’t realize is that colon cancer is the third most common cancer in America, affecting almost 110,000 people each year. Screening for colon cancer is one of the best ways to catch it early, and get it treated quickly.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that everyone receive colon cancer screening at age 50, and earlier with certain risk factors. It is recommended that blood in the stool gets tested annually after age 50, and two types of colon cancer screening options are suggested in addition:

Colonoscopy (a fiber optic scope that examines the entire colon) – recommended every 10 years.
This is the only test that can not only detect colon cancer, but also prevent it by removing polyps from the colon!
Sigmoidoscopy (a fiberoptic scope to examine the left side of the colon) recommended –every 5 years.
Other types of colon cancer screening are being developed and evaluated, but are not yet widely available.

The screenings can identify polyps in your colon, which can lead to or be cancerous. The earlier they are detected and/or removed, the lower your cancer risk. There are several reasons to begin getting screenings sooner than age 50, including:

  • A personal history of colon cancer, polyps, or longstanding inflammatory bowel disease
  • Direct family history of colon cancer in parents or siblings – a baseline screening 10 years before you reach the age of the person who got cancer is recommended. (Your parent was diagnosed at 50, you should be screened at age 40)
  • A family history of premalignant polyps (precancerous polyps called adenomas).

Certain additional factors increase your risk for developing colon cancer. They include:

  • African American heritage. African Americans have the highest rates of colon cancer.
  • Some professional medical societies advocate starting screening at age 45. Talk to your doctor about starting screening early.
  • Being over 50 without a history of polyps or family history
  • Smoking
  • Obesity (high fat diet)
  • Alcohol consumption (over three drinks per day)

In addition to colon cancer, gastroenterologists help patients with diseases related to the digestive system including reflux disorders, irritable bowel, pancreatitis, hepatitis, certain types of incontinence and ulcers.  Contact your primary care provider if you believe you may have symptoms related to digestive disease.