It occurred to me as I started this year’s Colon Cancer Awareness campaign that I never fully addressed exactly what colon cancer is and how it differs from other cancers. That said, did you know there are over 100 types of cancer out there and that not all cancers grow at the same rate?
So, we’ll do our best here to address every single damn one of ’em and since it’s March and it’s mine, we’ll start with colon cancer.
First, in order to understand colon cancer, you gotta be clear on what the colon is and what it does for you:
Now that you can visualize how it all works, let’s tackle the questions on the how, who and why of colon cancer.
Dr. W. Travis Dierenfeldt, a GI specialist, who’s performed over 30,000 endoscopic (that camera attached to a tube that goes up your you-know-what) colonoscopies, offered up some answers for us.
FYI, sometimes you’ll hear it called “colorectal” cancer. It’s just a wording that combines two cancers (colon cancer and rectal cancer) that have a lot of similarities, but they are two different cancers. Anything in the rectum is rectal cancer. Anything above it in the small or large intestine is colon cancer.
Q: Who can get colorectal cancer?
A: There are two categories for people at risk of getting colorectal cancer; Average Risk or High Risk (noticed how there isn’t a category for NO risk). A High Risk person would be someone; personal or family history of colon cancer or polyps, However, most people that develop colon cancer have NO risk factors whatsoever and are asymptomatic (show no signs) until it is too late and the disease is quite advanced. Average risk is everybody else, but In reality, people with no history of colorectal cancer are at the highest risk, because they don’t expect it, so they don’t take preventive measures.
Q: Why do people get colon cancer?
A: The bottom line is that we don’t know why people get colon cancer. There is a genetic aberration (oddity) in the cells that line the colon, things go haywire and the cancer develops.
Q: How fast does it grow?
A: Luckily, for most people, it grows slowly and starts out as a polyp and over a 7 to 10 year period the polyp turns into cancer. However, especially in younger people, the polyp progresses much more quickly or you can develop a cancer without the polyp to cancer progression.
Q: What’s a polyp?
A: A polyp is a growth in the colon. Kind of reminds me of a skin tag. Not all are cancerous but most of them are precancerous (the potential to become cancerous). They can be removed during the screening/colonoscopy thus, preventing them from becoming cancer.
Sometimes people with the symptom of rectal bleeding will brush it off as hemorrhoids. That’s a huge mistake to make. Always contact your GP if you see any blood in your poo or on the toilet tissue when you wipe. Keep in mind that hemorrhoids are very common, so just because you have hemorrhoids doesn’t mean you can’t have colon polyps or colon cancer as well.
Q: I know the national awareness campaigns are encouraging people 50 years old and over to get screened, but I am living proof and so are many others, that waiting until 50 could kill you (I was 45 when I was diagnosed stage IV). So, when should someone under 50 years old consider getting a colonoscopy?
A: If you are under 50, you should consider getting a colonoscopy for the following reasons:
- If you have any unexplained GI symptoms including abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, blood in the stool, excessive gas and bloating, or change in bowel habits.
- If you are asymptomatic (no signs), a colonoscopy would be recommended if you have a family history of colon polyps or colon cancer. A history of inflammatory bowel disease such as crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.
Once you reach 50 years old, even if you have no family history of colon polyps or cancer you should schedule the appointment. It is covered by all insurance companies so far as I know. There are no excuses. Get a colonoscopy. Get the polyp. Avoid colorectal cancer.
Q: Some people think the FBOT (poop smear test) is just as good as a colonoscopy and can detect cancer in its early stages. Is this true?
A: The FBOT misses just as many cancers as it detects. More than anything, I think if someone has a positive test, then it is enough to convince them to go ahead with a colonoscopy if they have been hesitant to have one before that time.
A: Yes, smoking does increase your risk for colon cancer.
A: No, eating sugar does not cause colon cancer.
Q: What is the most effective/least invasive treatment for colorectal cancer?
A: Prevention is the key. A colonoscopy is the best screening test to date.
The best advice I can give would be the following:
- If you have unexplained GI symptoms see your doctor. This could be constipation, diarrhea, gas, bloating, cramping or blood in the stool.
- If you see blood in your stool, definitely see your doctor.
- If you have a family history of colon polyps or colon cancer you should have your first colonoscopy 10 years before your relative was diagnosed or at age 40 whichever is earlier. So if your mother had colon cancer diagnosed at age 45 then you should have your first colonoscopy at age 35.
The Bottom Line
- Anyone (man or woman) at any age (I’ve seen cases as young as 19) is at risk of getting colorectal cancer whether there is a family history of colon cancer or not.
- colorectal cancer forms from polyps that grow in the colon/rectum lining over time and become cancerous tumors that grow, break through the lining and spread to vital organs.
- not all polyps are cancerous, but most are precancerous and no one knows exactly what triggers them to become cancerous.
- A colonoscopy is the only way to detect and remove polyps.
- remove the polyps, remove the chance of getting colorectal cancer.
– Dr. W. Travis Dierenfeldt is a board certified gastroenterologist who has performed over 30,000 colonoscopies and is an expert in colon cancer prevention. He is currently practicing medicine at The Gastro-Intestinal Consultants of Manhattan, Kansas.