I’m writing about colon cancer this week because of two recent incidents involving people I know.
One is a patient I saw last week. He is 60 years old, and because his insurance was lapsing, he asked his doctor to order a colonoscopy exam, even though he had no symptoms. Colon cancer was found before it had spread, and his treatment gives him a good chance of survival.
The other is a very close family friend. She was 47 last year when she saw her doctor for rectal bleeding. Her workup included a colonoscopy, which showed colon cancer. She is under treatment and also has a good chance of survival.
Cancer of the colon and rectum is the third leading cause of cancer in men and the fourth leading cause in women. It’s a diagnosis that is more commonly seen in the Western, industrialized world.
Risk factors can include age (50 years and older), a family history of colon cancer, a high-fat diet, smoking and excessive alcohol intake.
Most colon cancers begin from polyps in the colon, which usually start out as benign but after time can become malignant. Therefore, timely diagnosis and removal of polyps can help prevent the development of colon cancer.
A colonoscopy exam is the current best method for detecting colon polyps. During the same procedure, the doctor can easily remove any polyps. Colonoscopy is essentially painless, is an outpatient procedure and is a small price to pay for the possible early detection of colon cancer.
The more common symptoms of colon cancer include rectal bleeding or blood in the stool, a change in bowel habits, a feeling that the bowel doesn’t empty completely, weakness or fatigue, and unexplained weight loss. Any of those symptoms should sends you to see your doctor as soon as possible.
Your doctor will most likely do a rectal exam, perform a rapid chemical test of a sample of your stool to check for trace amounts of blood, take a blood sample to check for anemia and, most likely, schedule a colonoscopy exam.
Surgery is the most common treatment for colon cancer. Chemotherapy and radiation are also often used, depending on the extent and placement of the cancer.
The bottom line is that colon cancer, if diagnosed early enough, has a very favorable prognosis — and, if found too late, after it has metastasized (spread) to other organs, has a much poorer survival rate.
Talk to your doctor about colon cancer screening if you are 50 years old or older or if you are younger and have a family history of colon cancer. Especially see your doctor if you have any of the above-mentioned symptoms. Don’t settle for anything less than a colonoscopy exam if you have persistent symptoms. Denial or delay can be a matter of life or death.