Colon cancer can be among the most treatable forms of cancer when found and treated early. Proactive screening is recommended every 10 years beginning at age 45 for blacks, and age 50 for other sectors of the population. If there is a family history of colon polyps or cancer, a screening evaluation may be recommended earlier.
There are a number of colon cancer screening options available. Colonoscopy is ideal because it is the most accurate method. It allows your gastroenterologist to not only look for colon cancer, but also remove precancerous polyps that are much more common. Most colon cancers arise from these precancerous polyps, and removing them greatly reduces the risk of colon cancer developing in those patients.
Preparations for colonoscopy have improved over the years. Taking some of the prep the night before and some the morning of the procedure (split-dose preps) have improved the quality of the exams. The procedure itself has also improved with the development of smaller and more advanced scopes and equipment.
In the majority of patients, precancerous polyps and early stage colon cancer causes no symptoms, making screening all the more important. It's best to find and treat colon cancer before symptoms arise. When symptoms do appear, it may be when the cancer is at a more advanced stage and therefore more difficult to treat.
Initial symptoms of colon polyps or colon cancer may include a change in bowel pattern. This may be diarrhea, constipation or even a change in frequency that lasts for more than a few weeks. A change in the caliber of the stool, such as narrowing of the stool or a sense of incomplete emptying, can also be warning signs.
Blood in the stool is another concern. This may appear as bright red rectal bleeding, or blood mixed in with the stool itself. Sometimes blood can cause the stool to appear black in color. Unexplained anemia or unexplained weight loss are other symptoms that may signify colon cancer. It's important to know that these symptoms may also be caused by a less serious underlying factor, like hemorrhoids. However, if symptoms appear, a visit to the doctor is in order.
Regular colonoscopy is the best way to both find and prevent colon cancer. The great advantage of colonoscopy is that it can largely prevent a colon cancer from developing by removing polyps in an individual. The best time to treat colon cancer is while a person has no symptoms and the cancer is in its earliest stages.
Routine colon cancer screening is covered by most insurance plans, so check with your insurance provider regarding your benefits.
It's important to know your family history, as your primary care provider may recommend earlier or more frequent screening. Tell your doctor any family history you may have, or notify your doctor immediately if any unusual signs or symptoms occur.