Colorectal cancer is the second most common cancer killer in the United States, claiming over 55,000 lives each year. Only lung cancer claims more lives. More than 132,000 new cases of colorectal cancer are diagnosed each year. Each married couple has a one in 10 chance that either the husband or wife will develop colorectal cancer in their lifetime.
Although an exact cause is not known, most colon cancers arise from polyps, growths on the wall of the colon that become cancerous over time. Women are just as likely as men to develop colorectal cancer, and people with a family history of polyps, colorectal cancer or chronic digestive conditions are at higher than average risk. The chance of getting the disease increases after age 40 and is most common after age 50.
Most early cancers produce no symptoms, which is why screening for colorectal cancer is so important. Some possible symptoms of colorectal cancer include abdominal pain, blood in or on the stool, a change in typical bowel habits, constipation, diarrhea or a change in stool caliber or shape.
Colorectal cancer is very curable, if detected early. The American Cancer Society recommends the following screening schedule, beginning at age 50, for persons at average risk for the disease:
- An annual fecal occult blood test, which involves taking samples of your stool at home over a three-day period, and flexible sigmoidoscopy, the use of a flexible lighted tube to view the lower third of the colon, where 65 percent of polyps occur. If these tests are normal, the fecal test should be repeated annually and the sigmoidoscopy every five years
- A colonoscopy, in which a longer flexible tube is threaded through the full length of the colon. A miniaturized video camera linked to a monitor gives the physician a complete view of the colon and rectum. Instruments can be passed through the tube and used to remove polyps. If the test is normal, it should be repeated every 10 years
- Double-contrast barium enema, in which the patient is given an enema containing a substance that shows up on X-ray. This outlines the colon walls, revealing tumors and polyps. If the results are normal, the procedure should repeated every five to 10 years.
- Digital rectal exam, in which the physician inserts a finger into the rectum to feel for growths. These exams are performed along with the exams above; some physicians perform them earlier than age 50.
SOURCES: American Cancer Society, “Cancer Prevention & Early Detection, Facts and Figures 2000” and the Harvard Women’s Health Watch, April 1999. American College of Gastroenterology “Colon Cancer Facts“
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