Employee & Community Health

Colorectal cancer screening: Just do it

3/2/2017 by Dr. Joseph Furst

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Screening for colorectal cancer is a personal issue for me. My older brother was on a trip to New York when he experienced abdominal pain. He was hospitalized and found to have a bowel obstruction from colon cancer. He was 50 when this happened - the age he would have started routine screening. Other than the sudden abdominal pain, he had no other symptoms. 

That was 18 years ago; luckily, my brother's one of the survivors. But my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer in her 80s and died from it. With a family history like mine, it's easy to be motivated to get screened. When you don't have that connection, it's easy to put it off. But getting screened could save your life. 

According to the U.S. Preventative Task Force (USPSTF), colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. In 2017, an estimated 135,000 people will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer, about 50,000 will die from it. But with screening, it's also one of the most preventable cancers. 

This cancer is most frequently diagnosed in adults age 65 to 78; the median age of dying from colorectal cancer is 68. The USPSTF has found convincing evidence that screening for colorectal cancer in adults age 50 to 75 reduces deaths from these cancers. But only about one-third of those eligible in the U.S have undergone screening. 

Aside from scheduled screening, you should contact you care team if you experience: 

  • Change in bowel habit, including diarrhea or constipation
  • Change in the consistency of your stool lasting longer than four weeks
  • Rectal bleeding or blood in the stool
  • Persistent abdominal pain
  • Feeling of incomplete evacuation
  • Weakness or fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss

However, many people with colon cancer experience no symptoms in the early stages of the disease when it could be caught by routine screening. While traditional screening is considered unpleasant, there now is a menu of screening tests available beyond the standard colonoscopy, including: 

  • Colonography, or CAT-scan screening
  • Stool testing for blood
  • Stool testing for colon-cancer DNA

The important thing is to undergo screening. Have a conversation with your health care team and get screened!

Dr. Joseph Furst is a member of Care Team Charlie at the Mayo Family Clinic Southeast. He and his extended family participate in Colon Cancer Coalition running events to raise money for research. The Rochester "Get Your Rear in Gear" event is June 24. On March 6, landmarks across the state, including the Foshay Tower, 35W and Lowry Ave. bridges in Minneapolis and Enger Tower in Duluth, will be lit blue to highlight statewide efforts to get more Minnesotans screened for this largely preventable disease.