by Matthew O’Donnell, D.O., Chestnut Hill Hospital

There are a lot of myths and misinformation surrounding colon cancer — the third most common cancer and the second-leading cause of cancer death in the United States. One of the most important facts is: colon cancer is preventable and treatable if caught early – and one of the easiest ways to detect it is a simple screening.

Fifty percent of colon cancer cases could be prevented by simple lifestyle changes and 95 percent of cases cured, if detected early, according to the Susan Cohen Colon Cancer Foundation. An estimated 150,000 men and women in the United States are diagnosed with colon cancer each year, and almost 50,000 die from the disease.

Myth: Colorectal cancer is a rapidly spreading, deadly disease

Fact: Most forms of colorectal cancer are slow growing, and as many as 95% of cases are curable if detected early.

Myth: Colon cancer affects mainly men.

Fact: Colon cancer affects men and women equally. While the risk level is the same, men and women do manifest colon cancer differently. Women usually develop the disease later in life, and the cancer affects different areas of the colon in men and women.

Myth: Colon cancer isn’t preventable.

Fact: Colon cancer can be easily prevented with regular screening colonoscopies. Often, precancerous polyps can be found and removed during a colonoscopy.

Myth: You can get colon cancer at any age.

Fact: More than 90 percent of people diagnosed with colon cancer are age 50 and older.

Myth: Colon cancer is fatal, so screenings don’t make a big difference.

Fact: Colon cancer is very treatable; in fact, if the cancer is found early, the five year survival rate is 90 percent.

Myth: Colon cancer isn’t that common.

Fact: Colon cancer is the third-most common cancer in the United States, just behind prostate (men) and breast cancer (women) at number one, and lung cancer at number two.

Myth: Having a colonoscopy is painful and embarrassing.

Fact: Having a colonoscopy is not as unpleasant as most people expect. To prevent any discomfort, the patient is sedated for this outpatient procedure, which is usually completed in less than 30 minutes.

An important first step in colon cancer screening and prevention is a colonoscopy. During the procedures, the doctor uses a lighted flexible scope to examine the colon and rectum for abnormalities such as inflamed tissue or irregular growths, also known as polyps.

All adults should receive a screening colonoscopy by age 50, or earlier if you have any of the following risk factors: a personal or family history of polyps or colorectal cancer; inflammatory or intestinal conditions (ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, etc.); a diet high in red meats, fats, and processed foods; or if you are inactive, overweight, smoke, or a heavy drinker.

Symptoms

Colorectal cancer can be present with no symptoms at all, which is why a screening is so important. However, see your doctor if you have any of the following symptoms:

• A change in bowel habits

• Blood (either bright red or very dark) in the stool

• Diarrhea, constipation, or feeling that the bowel does not empty completely

• Stools that are narrower than usual

• Frequent gas pains, bloating, fullness, or cramps

• Weight loss for no known reason

• Feeling very tired

Your doctor may refer you to a gastroenterologist, a surgeon or an internist who can perform the colonoscopy. Depending on what is found during the procedure, your doctor will recommend the right time for a follow-up colonoscopy. If cancer is discovered, you’ll be referred to a surgeon or medical oncologist for treatment.

To learn more, visit www.chestnuthillhealth.com, choose the “Health Resources” tab and type “Colon Cancer” in the search box. You will find several videos and podcasts, health tips, a risk assessment – and more.

Sources: The American Cancer Society, www.cancer.org, The Susan Cohan Colon Cancer Foundation, www.coloncancerfoundation.org.