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Testing is Key in Early Diagnosis of Colon Cancer

It may not get the press that breast cancer does, but colorectal cancer (CRC) is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer in women worldwide.
While talking about intestines and their function isn’t pleasant, it’s important to note that one third of people diagnosed with CRC die as a result of this cancer.
Catching colorectal cancer early is important. Unfortunately, often times there aren’t any symptoms in the early stage. According to one study, symptoms can include:

  • Blood, appearing red or black in your stool
  • Abdominal pain
  • Iron-deficient anemia
  • Change in stool patterns

Often, the cancer is in its advanced stages by the time these symptoms present themselves.
The good news is that there are ways to prevent CRC from developing in the first place. A high fat diet, sedentary lifestyle, cigarette smoking, alcohol, and obesity have all been associated with an increased risk of CRC. In addition, higher calcium intake, or use of aspirin or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (e.g. ibuprofen) have been linked to a lower CRC risk in some studies. Still, even with a healthy lifestyle and healthy body, CRC can sneak its way in. A close family friend of mine—57 years old, healthy, and no family history of CRC—died recently from colon cancer. She had abdominal pain when she was diagnosed less than a year ago.
The key to prevention lies in regularly scheduled screening tests. According to the American Cancer Society, screening for CRC for a woman of average risk should start at 50 years of age, earlier for those at high risk—with a family member with CRC. Screenings can be done in three ways:

  • Fecal occult blood test where a sample of your stool is sent to the lab to look for hidden blood; done annually
  • Sigmoidoscopy, done every five years, examines only the left side of the colon, so not as thorough as a colonoscopy
  • Colonoscopy, done every 10 years, looks at the entire colon and allows for removal of suspicious/precancerous polyps.

Colonoscopy and sigmoidoscopy screenings require a thin flexible tube with a camera on the end to be inserted through the rectum. Though this causes discomfort, as with many things that are good for our health, it’s the right thing to do. Whichever method you choose, get a colorectal cancer screening. It could save your life.

Kelly Motadel, M.D., MPH. is the Chief Medical Officer of Vista Community Clinic.