Colon cancer occurs when malignant cells grow in the large intestine. Since cancer can begin in the colon or rectum, these often are grouped and referred to as colorectal cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that about 106,180 people will develop colon cancer in 2022. The good news is that colon cancer rates have dropped overall in the past 40 years – primarily because early detection is so effective, and more people are getting screened. Here, Richmond University Medical Center in Staten Island, NY, discusses early warning signs.
Early Warning Signs of Colon Cancer
Nearly all colorectal cancer begins as precancerous growths, called polyps, in the colon or rectum. These polyps often grow very slowly over time, so they do not always cause symptoms. They are benign at first, but they can mutate into malignant growths. Some patients do not even know they have colorectal polyps until they get a colonoscopy.
For patients who do exhibit symptoms, the most common early sign of colon cancer is bowel changes. These can include constipation, diarrhea, and narrowing of stools. The most noticeable early symptom is blood in or on the stool. However, many other routine health issues can cause changes in a person’s bowels, such as hemorrhoids. If you have noticed any of these changes, talk openly with your physician to get the correct diagnosis and treatment.
Other symptoms that may be early warning signs of colon cancer are:
- Pain or bloating in the abdomen or pelvis
- Unexplained weight loss
- Rectal bleeding
A patient who is experiencing these symptoms should make an appointment with their primary care physician.
Know Your Risk Factors
While all older adults should get screened, certain individuals are more likely to develop colon cancer. A patient’s risk factors for colon cancer can include:
- Inflammatory bowel disease: Conditions such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease increase the likelihood that a patient will develop polyps in their colon.
- Family history: If you have a close relative who had colorectal polyps or cancer, your physician may recommend that you begin screening at an earlier age.
- Diet and lifestyle: A sedentary lifestyle and a high-fat, low-fiber diet can increase your risk, as can excessive alcohol and tobacco use.
Additionally, certain inherited conditions, such as Lynch syndrome and familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP), can increase your chances of developing colorectal cancer.
Reducing Your Risk
If you are at risk of developing colorectal cancer, certain lifestyle changes may help, such as:
- Eating a balanced diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
- Increasing your physical activity and maintaining a healthy weight
- Quitting smoking
- Limiting your alcohol consumption
The most important thing you can do, however, is get screened. A colon cancer screening can find precancerous polyps and remove them before they develop into cancer. Most adults should get screened starting at age 45, although your physician may recommend getting screened at an earlier age if you have a family history of polyps or cancer.
During a colonoscopy, the patient is sedated. Their physician will use a thin tube to examine the patient’s rectum and colon for polyps or signs of cancer. During the test, the physician usually can remove any polyps that are identified, so the patient will not need a second colonoscopy. If no polyps are found, the patient usually will not have to have another colonoscopy for 10 years.
Diagnosis and Treatment
If you have been experiencing symptoms that may point to colon cancer, your physician may use several tests to determine an accurate diagnosis. These can include:
- Blood tests
- Imaging tests such as a CT scan, MRI, or X-rays
- Diagnostic colonoscopy
While colon cancer often is detected during a routine colonoscopy, these additional tests can determine how advanced a patient’s cancer is (Stage 0 to Stage IV). Early-stage colorectal cancer often can be treated with surgery alone. If a patient’s cancer is more advanced, they may require chemotherapy or radiation in addition to surgery.
Get Cancer Screening at Richmond University Medical Center
When it comes to cancer, early detection is key. If you are over 45 or have a family history of colon cancer, talk with your physician about scheduling a cancer screening. At Richmond University Medical Center in Staten Island, NY, our oncology team is equipped to screen for, diagnose, and treat many different types of cancer. For more information, contact us today.