Do you have changes in your bowel habits, such as diarrhea, constipation and the feeling that the bowel does not completely empty? Is there any blood in your stool? Are the stools narrower than normal? Are you constantly tired? Do you have weight loss with no explanation? These symptoms and general abdominal discomfort such as frequent gas pains, bloating, fullness and/or cramps may signify a serious disease. Of course, many times there is a simple, non-life threatening illness to explain the symptoms. But with a simple screening test, a more serious disease such as colorectal cancer can be ruled out.
Colorectal cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer death worldwide, and it is now recommended in the U.S. that everyone age 50 and over receive a colorectal cancer screening test whether or not they have any symptoms. Up to 75% of cases of colorectal cancer occur in people with no known risk factors (other than age). The good news is that 90% of colorectal cancer is treatable if detected early, according to the U.S. National Colorectal Cancer Research Alliance. Testing is especially important (and should be started before age 50) if you have one or more of the following risk factors:
- Age 50 or older
- A family history of rectal or colon cancer or polyps
- A personal history of colon, ovary, uterus, or breast cancer
- A history of polyps and/or chronic intestinal disorders, such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis
- Certain hereditary conditions that relate to the intestines
Colon cancer risk factors
Other risk factors identified by the American Cancer Society include a diet that is high in fat (particularly from animal sources), lack of exercise, being very overweight (particularly among those whose excess weight is centered around the waist area), smoking, and heavy use of alcohol.
One of the most common screening methods is a colonoscopy, where a thin scope is inserted and the large intestine is viewed by a gastroenterologist. If a polyp is identified during the colonoscopic test, it can be immediately removed. A more widely used screening test but less specific is the hemoccult test where small samples of stool are placed on special cards and returned to the physician to test for evidence of mircroscopic bleeding, which can indicate a wide range of gastroenterological disorders and diseases. If this test is positive, it generally leads to a colonoscopy. A gastroenterologist can also view the stomach with a gastroscope if needed. Both of these are relatively painless, same-day procedures; the patient stays awake the entire time, or he or she can be put to sleep, if preferred by the patient.
If you are over age 50, call your doctor to schedule a colonoscopy today. If you are under age 50 but have other symptoms or risk factors, discuss your situation with your doctor or a gastroenterologist. This is one simple test that can prevent suffering and possibly save your life.