What you should know about colorectal cancer

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Colorectal cancer is a leading cause of cancer death in this country. It can be detected early through screening tests. Thousands of lives could be saved each year through screening, yet many people who should be tested are not.

What is colorectal cancer?

Colorectal cancer refers to cancer of the colon or rectum, both of which make up the large intestine (or large bowel). This cancer usually starts as small benign polyps. Not all polyps turn into cancer, and those that do usually take 5 to 15 years to become cancerous. So removing small polyps early can actually help prevent this cancer.

What are the symptoms?

In early stages of colorectal cancer, there are often no symptoms. This cancer is most curable when found before it causes symptoms thus the importance of regular testing.

When symptoms do occur, they might include:

  • Changes in bowel habits
  • Rectal bleeding or blood in the stool (bright red or very dark)
  • Abdominal cramps or frequent gas pains or bloating
  • Frequent diarrhea or constipation
  • Unexplained weight loss or fatigue

Should you be tested?

Talk with your health care provider about testing if:

  • You are age 50 or older
  • You are at higher risk for developing colorectal cancer; for example, if you:
    • Have a personal or family history of colorectal cancer
    • Have polyps in your colon or rectum
    • Have a history of endometrial, ovarian, or breast cancer
    • Have inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis)

What test should you have?

Men and women age 50 and older should be screened in one of the following ways:

  • Colonoscopy every 10 years: This is a precise procedure in which a long flexible tube is used to examine the full length of the colon. This test allows for a close check of the lining of the rectum and the entire colon (lower bowel). If polyps are seen, they can be removed for further testing.
  • Fecal occult blood test every year: This is a simple screening test to find unseen blood in the stool, which can be a sign of cancer in the colon or rectal area. Your health care provider may give you a kit with instructions on collecting your own stool samples at home.
  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy every 5 years. This test allows for a close check of the lining of the rectum and part of the colon (lower bowel). A flexible tube is passed into the anus and advanced slowly to the sigmoid colon. If any area appears abnormal, a small tissue sample can be taken and sent to the lab for further study.
  • Both the fecal occult blood test (every year) and sigmoidoscopy (every 5 years).

What else can you do?

To keep yourself as healthy as possible and decrease your risk of cancer:

  • Eat a well-balanced diet and keep your weight in check.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Don't smoke.
  • Limit your alcohol intake.
  • Discuss your risk factors with your health care provider, and have regular preventive testing as recommended for you.

Talk with your health care provider if you have questions or need more information about colorectal cancer screening. You might also want to visit the following Web sites:

Aurora's public service announcements

Aurora takes an innovative approach in pubic service announcements that incorporates a light-hearted approach to the very important subject of colon cancer screenings.

DISCLAIMER: The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.