March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month. To help understand the importance of screening recommendations and options, The Program for the Elimination of Cancer Disparities (PECaD) asked Jean Wang, MD, PhD, associate professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, to discuss who should be screened and what screening options are available for patients. Dr. Wang is a gastroenterologist who screens for colorectal cancer, also known as colon cancer, at Siteman Cancer Center. She works with patients to understand and reduce cancer risk before a diagnosis, or to treat colon cancer once it’s been detected.
Colon cancer is cancer that occurs in the colon or rectum. This area extends from the large intestine to a person’s anus. Sometimes polyps, or pre-cancerous growths, can be seen during screenings. If found during a screening test, polyps can be removed to prevent cancer in the future. Colon cancer is most treatable when it is found in the early stages. Colon cancer itself is the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States, so screening tests are vital to both men's and women’s health.
Dr. Wang points out there are three screening tests for colon cancer and urges you to talk with your doctor about which test may be best for you, and how often follow-up may be needed. Since colon cancer can present without any symptoms, it’s important for both men and women who are 50 years of age and older to be screened.
Colon Cancer Screenings:
- Colonoscopy: This test is completed every 10 years and is common for colon cancer screenings. Your doctor will use a long and flexible light tube to check your entire colon for any polyps or cancer. If any polyps exist, they can be removed during the procedure. Removing precancerous polyps can prevent cancer. During a colonoscopy, you will be sedated so you won’t feel anything. A colonoscopy can also be a follow-up test for any other abnormal screening tests.
- Stool Test: This screening test should be completed every year, and is a simple test completed through a stool sample. You can complete the test in the privacy of your own home and return the stool sample back to a lab or your doctor’s office to test for any blood in your sample.
- Flexible Sigmoidoscopy: This should be completed every five years and is very similar to the colonoscopy except that it only examines your rectum and lower portion of your colon with a flexible lighted tube, rather than the entire colon as is done with colonoscopy. For this reason, sigmoidoscopy isn’t performed as often now in the United States compared to colonoscopy. The sigmoidoscopy is often done without sedation.
People who are at high risk may begin screening earlier than age 50 or have more frequent screenings. Those who are high risk may include a person who has a family history of colon cancer, or has had polyps or cancer removed previously, or someone who has an inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s disease.
If you have additional questions about colon cancer screening, visit Siteman Cancer Center online or call 1-800-600-3606 for a referral. There are also additional types to reduce your risk of colon cancer through the 8 Ways to Prevent Colon Cancer brochure. This brochure is available for download in English, Spanish, and Bosnian. A version is also available for the American Indian and Alaska Natives communities.