Colon cancer screening could save your life

Posted at 9:10 AM, Mar 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-04 11:10:55-05

More than 150,000 Americans develop colorectal cancer each year, making it the second most common cancer related cause of death in the United States.

The good news? Colorectal cancer is preventable, detectable, and if found early, treatable.

According to the American Cancer Society, 9 out of 10 times early treatment saves lives and the five-year survival rate for colon cancer if caught early is 90%. This is why Intermountain Healthcare clinicians are reminding people about the importance of regular screening in order to detect cancer at its earliest – and most treatable stage.

“Early screening, especially with colonoscopy, holds the promise of saving lives,” said Mark A. Lewis, MD, a medical oncologist and director of gastrointestinal oncology at Intermountain Healthcare. “Many colorectal cancers begin as a small polyp, and if a polyp is found during colonoscopy, it can be removed, preventing the polyp from ever turning into cancer. Thus, colonoscopy can serve as both a screening and preventive tool.”

Colon cancer screening should begin at age 50 for most people, but understanding family history, genetics, and other risk factors can also help patients and doctors determine when to individualize care and screen earlier.

In the early stages of colorectal cancer, there may also be no symptoms. This is another reason why it’s important to know the risk factors associated with colorectal cancer and talk to your doctor about when is the right time to get screened.

Risk factors for colon cancer:

  • Family History – If you have a close relative who has had colon cancer or a colon polyp, you may be at higher risk for getting the disease.
  • Age – About 90% of the time, colorectal cancer occurs in adults older than 45. However, colorectal cancer rates are rising in people who are in their 40’s. “One in seven of the patients in my oncology practice dealing with colon cancer are under the age of 50, when screening traditionally begins,” said Dr. Lewis. “Young people with abdominal pain and gastrointestinal bleeding need to see a doctor and be screened.”
  • Ethnicity – Rates of colorectal cancer are higher in African Americans compared with other races. This may be because fewer African Americans get screened for colon cancer.
  • Medical Conditions – Having an inflammatory bowel disease may increase your risk of developing colon cancer.
  • Lifestyle – There are some risk factors you can change. These include stopping smoking, improving your diet, being active, and keeping a healthy weight.

“Cancer doesn’t care who you are,” said Dr. Lewis. “Cancer used to be considered a disease of aging. It is not. Cancer has no respect for age or gender or race or creed.”

Screening for colon cancer:
In the past one of the only ways to screen was a colonoscopy, which uses a camera system inserted into the colon to look for possible issues. New advancements allow people to screen more often using a Fecal Immunochemical Test (FIT) kit at home.

Dr. Sterling Bennett, medical director of Intermountain Healthcare’s Central Lab, notes the test isn’t set to replace a colonoscopy, but can serve as a vital tool for regular monitoring for those with low to moderate risk of colorectal cancer.

“FIT allows people to monitor their health once a year and possibly catch an issue earlier.”

said Dr. Bennett. “The test gives patients piece of mind around something that can go undetected.”

The test works by the patient using the kit to take a small sample of their stool and put it in a tube for shipping back to the central lab. Technicians then use antibodies to look for traces of blood that wouldn’t be visible to the human eye. If the test comes out positive it could be the early signs of a bigger issue such as colon cancer. A doctor would follow up about additional screenings that would be needed to find the problem.

If a patient has a positive test, FIT kits aren’t recommended for further use, and doctors say a colonoscopy would be the best prevention measure in the future. They may have to be done more often depending on what a person’s doctor recommends.

A person can receive a FIT kit by having their doctor order them one. It is recommended people speak with their doctors to come up with a screening plan that’s right for them.

For more information on colonoscopies, FIT kits, or to find a physician go here.