A Routine Screening Colonoscopy Could Save Your Life

March 22, 2021

Dr. Riva DasColorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in men and women combined, according to The American Cancer Society – a dramatic statistic for a completely preventable disease. However, because more people are following recommendations for colon cancer screening and making positive lifestyle changes, the rate of diagnosis of colorectal cancer has been on the decline for several decades. In addition, treatments have also become more advanced.

The Screening Colonoscopy

A colonoscopy is the most reliable and thorough test to prevent colon cancer, making it the gold standard for screening, says Colorectal Surgeon Riva Das, MD. For most individuals, the first screening colonoscopy should be performed at age 45. "But if an individual has a family history of colon or rectal cancer in a first-degree relative, such as a sibling or parent, they should have their first colonoscopy 10 years prior to the age that their family member was diagnosed," she says. "And some individuals with a history of particular inherited or genetic disorders should start at an even earlier age."

The Cause and Treatment

Colon cancer begins when cells in the lining of the colon mutate and change into pre-cancerous cells that grow into a polyp, explains Dr. Das. The polyp may take anywhere from 5 to 10 or more years to turn into cancer. It is common to find polyps during a colonoscopy, but they are easily removed during the procedure, she says. Compared to other colon cancer screening modalities, such as a fecal occult blood test or Cologuard test, a colonoscopy allows for the removal of these polyps at the same time as the initial procedure. Alternatively, if a stool test returns positive, a follow up colonoscopy will still be needed for removal of any suspicious polyps or cancers.

If colon cancer is found, the most common treatment is surgery. Some patients may require treatment with chemotherapy and/or radiation as well. "If the patient has stage I or stage II colorectal cancer, they usually do not need any treatment besides surgical removal. However, if the cancer has progressed to stage III or stage IV, then chemotherapy and possibly radiation will most likely be recommended," says Dr. Das. "These more advanced stages indicate that the cancer has spread beyond the colon to involve lymph nodes or other organs. Chemotherapy may be given before surgery, after surgery, or in combination with radiation, in order to shrink the tumor size or to get rid of any microscopic remaining cells." Other treatments include immunotherapies, which work with the natural immune response of the body to recognize, attack and destroy colon cancer cells. "If colon cancer is detected early, the likelihood of achieving a complete cure is very good," she says.

Know the Symptoms

Colon cancer is a silent disease, and usually does not display symptoms in the early stages. By the time a person begins to experience symptoms, it is often too late and the cancer has spread. The most common signs include:

  • Blood in the stool
  • Abdominal pain and cramping
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Anemia
  • Irregular bowel movements, which could include diarrhea or constipation
  • Change in caliber or form of bowel movements

If you have any of these symptoms, please see your doctor.