Excluding certain types of skin cancer, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosis — and the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths — among men and women in the United States.
In 2022, experts estimate that close to 150,000 Americans will develop this “silent” disease, and more than 52,000 people will die from it. But it doesn’t have to be this way: Colorectal cancer screenings (colonoscopies) can and do save lives.
Colorectal cancer may be deadly, but it’s also highly treatable or even preventable in its early stages thanks to regular screenings. In recognition of National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, board-certified gastroenterologist Sam Weissman, MD, discusses the newly released guidelines for colorectal screenings and why you should schedule your next colonoscopy today.
Cancer forms when normal body cells experience a genetic mutation followed by uncontrolled growth. Colorectal cancer is a general term used to describe a malignancy that begins in the colon or rectum. Depending on its point of origin, it can also be called colon cancer or rectal cancer.
The colon is the large intestine, and the rectum is the passageway that connects the colon to the anus. There are various factors that can increase your risk of developing colorectal cancer, ranging from older age, family history, and bowel inflammation to a sedentary lifestyle and poor dietary choices.
Polyps that form on the lining of your colon or rectum are a common starting point of colorectal cancer — although they’re usually benign at first, these small uncontrolled growths have the potential to turn cancerous as time goes on.
A colonoscopy is widely considered the gold-standard screening tool for colorectal cancer, largely because it’s exceptionally thorough. It uses a thin and flexible lighted tube affixed with a tiny camera to check for polyps and cancer cells inside your rectum and your entire colon.
During the test itself, Dr. Weissman can remove some cancers and small to medium-sized polyps; certain cancers and larger polyps may require a second procedure. All biopsied tissue is sent to a lab for evaluation.
Despite its reliability and widespread use, it’s important to note that a colonoscopy is one of several effective screening tools for colorectal cancer — and guidelines do not prioritize one type of test over another. Other techniques include:
There are three different stool tests for colorectal cancer: The guaiac-based fecal occult blood test (gFOBT) and fecal immunochemical test (FIT) detect blood in your stool. In contrast, the stool DNA test detects altered genetic material that may be indicative of cancer.
This test is very similar to a colonoscopy, but it uses a shorter lighted tube that only checks for polyps or cancer inside the rectum and lower third of the colon.
A computed tomography (CT) colonography, or a so-called “virtual colonoscopy,” uses X-rays and computers to produce detailed images of your rectum and colon.
A follow-up colonoscopy is typically recommended if a stool test, flexible sigmoidoscopy screening, or CT colonography image reveals anything unusual or abnormal.
For many years, adults who carried an average risk of developing colorectal cancer were advised to start regular screenings when they turned 50. Today, because colorectal cancer cases are on the rise among younger adults, those guidelines have changed.
Both the U.S. Preventive Task Force and the American Cancer Society now recommend that all average-risk adults begin colorectal cancer screenings beginning at 45.
For average-risk adults in good health, colorectal cancer screenings should continue through the age of 75. How often you should be screened between the ages of 45 and 75 depends on the screening technique that’s recommended for you:
Between the ages of 75 and 85, older average-risk adults should make continued screening decisions jointly with their physicians based on health status and personal preference.
And, of course, anyone who has a higher-than-average risk of developing colorectal cancer should follow their doctor’s recommendations on when to begin screening, which technique to use, and how frequently to do it.
Remember, colorectal cancer is highly treatable when found early: About 90% of people diagnosed and treated promptly are still alive five years later. Colorectal cancer is also preventable, provided high-risk polyps are removed before becoming malignant.
Call 609-793-9375 to reach our Brighton Beach office in Brooklyn, New York, today, or click online to schedule your next colorectal cancer screening with Dr. Weissman any time.