If you’re the type to make New Year’s resolutions, we have an important one to add to your list. If you are age 50, or will be soon, you should sit down with your gastroenterologist and discuss the importance of a simple procedure that can help in the fight against colon cancer—a colonoscopy. Thanks largely in part to better screening procedures and advances in screening technology, both incidences and mortality rates of the disease have been on the decline over the past few decades, and our goal is to continue that trend and encourage all of our patients to stick to the guidelines for colorectal cancer screening.

How Is Colorectal Cancer Detected?

For starters, it’s important to know that colon and rectal cancers are different, but they share similar features and symptoms, and both affect the gastrointestinal tract, which is why they’re often grouped together. As is the case with many cancers, colorectal cancer can start small in the lining of the colon or rectum in a growth that is called a polyp. Most polyps are benign, or non cancerous, and most types of colon cancers are very slow growing.

Thankfully, there is a screening tool that can often find these polyps. A colonoscopy is a quick, simple exam that is conducted by one of our doctors in our office. It typically lasts less than an hour, and you’ll be able to recover in the comfort of your own home. During a colonoscopy, a thin, long tube is inserted in the rectum. The tube contains a light and small camera which allows the doctor to view the inside of your digestive tract. If a polyp is detected, it can be removed and biopsied to see if cancer is present. If the polyp is found to be precancerous or malignant, follow-up testing may be required.

When Should I Worry About Colorectal Cancer?

Incidences of colorectal cancer begin to rise around age 50, which is why screening recommendations suggest that regular colonoscopies begin at 50. Some incidences, especially early stage occurrences, are diagnosed without the patient even showing symptoms, making this screening even more crucial. Since the symptoms are often much like those of other GI illnesses like Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), or general digestive health troubles, many people assume it’s not a big deal and might not seek medical care. Some of these signs include severe stomach pain and cramping, blood in the stool, a change in bowel habits that lasts more than a few days, weakness and fatigue, and unintended weight loss.

Are There Risk Factors Other Than Age?

While age is your biggest risk factor, it’s important to realize that colorectal cancer can occur in younger demographics, especially in African American men and women. In addition to race and age, people who have an unhealthy diet and lifestyle, are overweight or obese, or are heavy alcohol or tobacco users are more prone to developing colorectal cancer. If you have a family history of cancer, especially one in the digestive tract, you should discuss this with your gastroenterologist to see if you need to begin screening procedures earlier than the recommended age of 50. If your test results come back clean, you can generally wait for another 10 years before another screening is required.

Schedule an appointment with Cary Gastroenterology Associates today to discuss any concerns you may have, and resolve for the new year to focus on good GI health and proper cancer screenings.