Colorectal cancer screening: Just do it
3/3/2022 by Joseph W. Furst, M.D.
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 20 years ago. Luckily, my brother is one of the survivors. But my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer in her 80s and she 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.
Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the U.S., according to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. The National Center for Health Statistics notes that colon cancer death is declining in all age groups, except ages 45–54, where it is increasing.
While the rate of colon cancer death is highest in the 75–84 age group, the increase in the 45–54 age group prompted the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force to join the American Cancer Society in recommending that colon cancer screening start at age 45. This year, many insurers caught up with that coverage recommendation.
Aside from scheduled screening, you should contact your care team if you experience:
- Change in bowel habits, 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, a menu of screening tests is now available beyond the standard colonoscopy, including:
- Colonography or CT screening.
- Stool testing for blood.
- Stool testing for colon cancer DNA.
The last two years have been challenging with the COVID-19 pandemic, but the lifetime risk for colon cancer death in the U.S. is 1 in 23 for men and 1 in 25 for women. March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and March 4 is Dress in Blue Day. By wearing blue, you bring awareness to this disease. So, as the Colon Cancer Coalition puts it, "Get Your Rear in Gear," and get screened.
Joseph W. Furst, M.D., is a member of Care Team Charlie at Mayo Family Clinic Southeast in Rochester, Minnesota. He and his extended family participate in Colon Cancer Coalition walk, bike and run events to raise money for research. The dates for those events are on the Colon Cancer Coalition website.