Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths, with about 1 in 20 people developing colon cancer at some point in their lives. To help reverse this statistic, Sidney Morrison, MD, ColoRectal Associates, shared answers to common questions about colon cancer.
1. What is colon cancer?
Cells that cause colon cancer most commonly come from mucus secreting cells that line the walls of the colon. Over time, these cells die and regenerate. As you grow older, your DNA changes, which could cause your cells to start growing too fast. When these cells are growing rapidly, they start to grow on top of each other, which forms a polyp. When doctors perform colonoscopies, they are screening for these polyps.
2. How can you prevent colon cancer?
The first step to preventing colon cancer is to be appropriately screened and to know your risk factors. One of the biggest risk factors is having a family history of colon cancer. If an immediate family member such as a sibling or parent has had colon cancer, then you should start getting screened at least 10 years before that family member was diagnosed. Some other risk factors include:
- Crohn’s disease
- Ulcerative colitis
Other factors that may increase your risk of colon cancer include:
- Lack of physical activity
- Consumption of red meat
- Alcohol use
Improving your diet, increasing your amount of exercise, quitting smoking and not drinking alcohol in excess are all great actions you can take toward improving your health. “All of these things may make you a healthier individual, but none of them exempt you from the potential risk of colon cancer. You still should get screened,” Dr. Morrison said.
3. Why should I start getting screened early?
The number one factor for improved outcomes and survival rates is diagnosing the cancer before the patient experiences any symptoms. If you get a colonoscopy early enough, the polyps can be removed and the cancer can be prevented or caught at a very early stage. “Survival rates are extremely high in stage I or early stage II colon cancers. The whole idea of getting screened early is not just to prevent cancers, but to prevent cancer deaths,” Dr. Morrison said.
If a doctor finds a premalignant polyp, that person goes from normal risk to high risk. A normal risk individual needs to be screened every 10 years. A high risk individual may need to be screened every one to five years, depending on the number of polyps found during the initial colonoscopy.
4. What are the symptoms of colon cancer?
- A change in bowel patterns.
- Unexplained bleeding.
- Unexplained anemia, or low blood count.
For more information about colon cancer or to find out if you need to schedule a colonoscopy, talk to your primary care physician.
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