While everyone knows colonoscopies are not exactly the most pleasant procedure, getting screened for colon cancer is incredibly important -- and can potentially save your life.
"Many of the symptoms are silent, so many people will not have any major symptoms whatsoever," says Dr. Jorge Lagares-Garcia of Roper St. Francis Healthcare. "Pain can be a late symptom of very advanced colorectal cancer."
What are the signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer?
The most common symptom that people do notice is blood in the stool, Dr. Lagares-Garcia says. That can be before, during or after a bowel movement, and is a sign it's time to call your doctor. Some people will also feel a lump, especially right at the end of the anal canal, that they might confuse for a hemorrhoid.
Another warning sign is a change in bowel habits. Perhaps the person used to go regularly and now they're only going every few days and need laxatives. Some patients will experience smaller, thinner, pencil-like stool, which can be a sign that something's wrong in the colon.
What do most people ignore that they shouldn't?
The most important thing you should never ignore is bleeding. "One of the most common problems is people think anything that bleeds is a hemorrhoid, but there are close to 50 different diagnoses tied to rectal pain or rectal bleeding that have nothing to do with hemorrhoids, including cancer," Dr. Lagares-Garcia says. Similarly, it's important to note that a lump is not always a hemorrhoid, but could actually be a tumor.
What are the steps for screening?
"If you follow the current guidelines from the American Cancer Society, screenings should begin at age 45," Dr. Lagares-Garcia says. "A lot of people still follow age 50, but more are now being proactive and getting screened at 45." At that point, you should contact your doctor and begin getting screened every 10 years. If they find a polyp or cancer and treat it at any point, you should begin getting screened every three to five years.
However, if you have a risk factor like a family history of colon cancer, then you should begin screenings earlier. Many people with a family history get tested to find out if they have the specific genetic mutation putting them at higher risk. Many insurance companies will cover that testing if you fit the criteria.
What about at-home testing?
You might have seen ads for Cologuard, which is a test that allows you to send in a stool sample to a company that will analyze it and send the results to your doctor. It can help with early detection, Dr. Lagares-Garcia says, especially for patients unwilling or unable to get an initial colonoscopy.
"For people who are really reluctant to have a colonoscopy and don't want an invasive procedure, Cologuard is probably the way to go," Dr. Lagares-Garcia says. "But it doesn't replace a colonoscopy screening."
As the Lowcountry leader in adult healthcare, Roper St. Francis can take care of all of your healthcare needs. To learn more or to schedule an appointment, call (843) 402-CARE or visit rsfh.com.