Published on March 21, 2022

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What is Colorectal Cancer?

Have you ever been screened for colorectal cancer? It’s a good idea. Screening can ease your mind and save your life.

Colorectal cancer: Why it’s so important that you get checked

According to the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancer (cancer of the colon or rectum) is one of the most common cancers diagnosed in the United States. And it’s the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in men and women.

“We strongly recommend screening for colorectal cancer. Screening allows us to catch cancer early before it spreads.” says Adrian Dyer, MD, a family medicine physician with Adventist Medical Group. “With screening tests, we can also prevent cancer by removing abnormal growths before they become cancerous.”

What is colorectal cancer? And how does it spread?

Colorectal cancer is a disease process that starts in the inner lining of the colon or the rectum. Abnormal cells in the body may divide out of control which can lead to malignant tumors.

Signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer

You may not notice any symptoms at first. Over time, you may experience:

  • A change in bowel habits that lasts for more than a few days (diarrhea, constipation, or narrowing of the stool)
  • Constantly feeling the need for a bowel movement
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Dark brown or black tarry stool
  • Cramping or pain in the abdomen
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss

When should you get your first colon cancer screening?

“If you’re at an average risk without any family history of colorectal cancer, we recommend that you start getting screened at regular intervals starting at age 45.” says Dr. Dyer. “However, people at greater risk for colorectal cancer may need to get checked at an earlier age and more frequently throughout their lives.”

Risk factors that increase the chances of having colorectal cancer include:

  • Inflammatory bowel disease (Ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease)
  • A family history of colorectal cancer
  • A personal history of colorectal cancer or polyps
  • Received radiation treatment to the abdomen or pelvic area

How can my doctor check for colorectal cancer?

Screening tests for colorectal cancer include stool tests and visual exams. Talk with your provider about which option is best for you.

Stool tests for colorectal cancer

With a stool test, your healthcare provider will give you a test kit that allows you to collect a stool sample at home. You’ll return the sample, and a lab will perform tests to look for traces of blood in the stool – a potential sign of cancer or polyps.

Another type of test – a stool DNA test – checks the stool for abnormal sections of DNA. Often, colorectal cancer or polyp cells contain DNA mutations which may show up in the stool. This test, called Cologuard, checks for both DNA changes and blood in the stool.

If your stool test detects either DNA changes or blood, you’ll need a colonoscopy to check for signs of cancer. Your doctor may advise you to have a stool test every one to three years.

Visual exams to check for colorectal cancer

With a visual exam, your provider uses special tools and imaging equipment to look inside the colon and rectum for abnormal tissue, polyps or cancer. There are several ways to do a visual exam. The two most common are:

  • Colonoscopy With a colonoscopy, the provider can see your entire colon (large intestine). Starting a day or two before the procedure, you will follow a clear liquid diet and drink a special laxative to clean and empty the bowels. The actual exam takes place in a hospital or outpatient center. You’ll be given light sedatives, anesthesia and pain medication. The provider will insert a thin, flexible tube – with an attached light and small video camera. Using the camera, your provider examines the interior lining of your colon, removes any polyps or suspicious-looking tissue and sends them to a lab to check for cancer. Usually, the actual colonoscopy takes less than an hour. You’ll go home a couple hours later and resume your normal routine the next day.
  • Virtual colonoscopy With virtual colonoscopy, a special computer program uses X-rays and CT scans to create three-dimensional pictures of your colon and rectum. The doctor does not need to insert a long scope as with a regular colonoscopy. But you will need to empty your bowels completely so that doctors can get clear images. If your provider finds polyps or other suspicious spots during the virtual colonoscopy, you will probably need a regular colonoscopy to remove them. This procedure is done in a hospital or outpatient center with a CT scanner and takes only about 10 minutes.

Bottomline – These tests are designed to catch cancer early and potentially save your life. Check with your provider about which tests are best for you and when you should get them. To find a doctor near you, Adventist Medical Group can help.

To learn about your risk for colorectal cancer, take our free online risk assessment.

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