March is "Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month." Colon cancer is not something most of us want to talk about, but having a candid conversation with your health care provider about your risk for developing colon cancer could save your life.
According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 150,000 Americans will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2011 and nearly 50,000 will die from the disease. Colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death for men and women combined. The risk of developing colorectal cancer increases with age; more than 90 percent of cases occur in people aged 50 years or older. Studies indicate as many as 60 percent of colorectal cancer deaths could be prevented if all men and women 50 years of age or older were screened routinely. The key is catching it early if the disease is present, hence the importance of regular screenings.
Colorectal cancer often has no symptoms until the disease has progressed beyond its earliest stages. Some potential signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer to watch for and also to ask your health care provider about include:
A change in bowel habits such as diarrhea, constipation or narrowing of the stool that lasts for more than a few days.
A feeling that you need to have a bowel movement that doesn't go away after doing so.
Rectal bleeding, dark stools or blood in the stool.
Cramping or stomach pain.
Weakness and tiredness.
If you have any of these symptoms, talk to your health care provider. These symptoms may be caused by something other than cancer. However, the only way to know what is causing them is to see your health care provider.
Are you at risk for colon cancer? Your risk for colorectal cancer may be higher than average if:
You or a close relative have had colorectal polyps or colorectal cancer.
You have inflammatory bowel disease.
You have a genetic syndrome such as familial adenomatous polyposis.
You smoke or use other tobacco products.
You are physically inactive.
You are 50 or older.
People at high risk for colorectal cancer may need earlier or more frequent tests than other people. Talk to your health care provider about when to begin screening and how often you should be tested.
Leading national organizations, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute, recommend regular colorectal cancer screening tests beginning at age 50. People who have had colorectal polyps, colorectal cancer or who have a close relative with these conditions, may need to begin colorectal cancer screening before age 50 and be screened more frequently. The U.S. Preventive Service Task Force recommends that all people be screened regularly for colorectal cancer until they reach 75 years of age, and certain cases continue to be screened beyond 75. Screening tests recommended by the USPSTF include:
Colonoscopy every 10 years.
Fecal occult blood test - FOBT - every year.
Flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years.
You can take steps to reduce your risk of colon cancer by making changes in your everyday life. These steps include to:
Eat a variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Drink alcohol in moderation.
Exercise most days of the week.
Maintain a healthy weight.
Many insurance plans and Medicare help pay for colorectal cancer screening tests. Check with your plan to find out which tests are covered for you.
The Trinity Cancer Center at Trinity Regional Medical Center is offering free colon cancer screening kits in recognition of colorectal cancer awareness month. The kits are designed to detect small amounts of hidden blood that can indicate early problems with polyps or cancers before other symptoms are apparent. For more information please call the Trinity Cancer Center at 574-8302.
The bottom line is if you are 50 years or older, talk with your health care provider about getting screened for colorectal cancer. The exam you undergo now could save your life.
RaeAnne Frey Marner, BSN, RN, OCN, is manager of the Cancer Center at Trinity Regional Medical Center.