Many people are embarrassed to talk about colorectal cancer, even with their doctors.
But silence can be deadly. When detected early, colorectal cancer is one of the
most curable cancers, yet it’s the third-leading cancer killer in the nation.
So I’m sparing you any awkwardness and putting the information out here for
you. Take this opportunity to learn some basics about colorectal cancer. Hopefully,
by the time you’re done reading, you’ll want to shout what you learned
from the nearest lanai.
What is colorectal cancer?
Colorectal cancer forms in the tissue of the colon or rectum. It affects men and
women equally. It develops when abnormal cells in the colon and rectum grow into
polyps that can eventually turn into cancer, which usually takes about 10 to 15
years. There are often no visible symptoms until the disease is in its late stages.
Getting screened is the only way to help curb this deadly cancer threat.
Why should I get screened?
Colorectal cancer is one of the slowest-progressing cancers. Since it takes so long
to develop, polyps can be easily detected and removed with a colonoscopy. Even if
the polyp has already turned into cancer, it’s much easier to treat in its
How do I get tested?
There are three screening methods for colorectal cancer. Talk to your doctor about
how often you should be tested and the right method for you.
A fecal occult blood test (FOBT) checks for blood in the stool.
During a flexible sigmoidoscopy, a doctor inserts a short, thin,
lighted tube into the rectum to check for polyps in the rectum and lower colon.
A colonoscopy is similar to a sigmoidoscopy, except a longer tube
examines the entire colon. Most polyps are removed during the process.
How often should I get tested?
Based on national guidelines, most people should begin routine screenings at age
50 (or age 45 for African Americans). Those with a family history or risk factors
for colorectal cancer should get tested earlier or more often. Inflammatory bowel
disease and disorders that cause frequent polyp growth are major risk factors.
FOBTs are usually performed annually. Sigmoidoscopies are usually done every five
years. Colonoscopies should be performed every 10 years, but your doctor may recommend
more frequent procedures if they discover abnormalities in an earlier test.
Does it hurt?
“No one looks forward to a colorectal cancer screening,” explains Larry
Hsu, M.D., “but many patients have told me after a colonoscpy that if they
knew how easy the procedure was, they wouldn’t have been nervous or avoided
it … It’s a tragedy that some people get colorectal cancer just because
they don’t want to take an exam.”
For a colonoscopy, you may be given a sedative for the procedure, which only takes
about 30 minutes. Most people are back to work the next day. The most unpleasant
part is preparing for the test by cleaning out your bowels. “Even this process
has become much easier over the years,” says Hsu. “And the other two
screening methods are a breeze.”
What else can I do?
Colonoscopies are the best weapon against colorectal cancer. But you can help lower
your risk of developing the disease (and many diseases) by eating a healthy diet
and staying physically active.
High-fiber diets rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains have been linked to
a lower risk of colon cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. Several
studies have shown that excessive alcohol use and obesity can increase your risk.
Why don’t people get tested?
People give lots of excuses to avoid colonoscopies. Some are too busy, don’t
like the preparation involved, or are afraid that it will hurt. Many people are
uncomfortable exposing or discussing their bottoms. But with a nearly 100 percent
success rate for preventing or treating early stages of colorectal cancer with colonoscopies,
no excuse is good enough.
Discussing colorectal cancer isn’t fun, isn’t pretty, and may not be
proper dinner conversation, but silence can kill you. Let’s get people talking
about this life-threatening condition. Talk to your doctor, family and friends about
this deadly disease. Ask questions. Make jokes and giggle if you have to. Most importantly
– get your okole to the doctor!
For information on HMSA coverage for colonoscopies, see the “Let
Sharon Help” column.