Colorectal cancer screenings may save your life

Colorectal cancer screenings may save your life

  • Colorectal cancer can happen to anyone.
  • Black people and those with a family history of the disease are at higher risk.
  • Screenings, early detection and follow-up care are essential.

[3 MIN READ]

Chadwick Boseman’s death at age 43 is a sobering reminder that colorectal cancer can strike anyone.

“Chadwick Boseman’s death was tragic, especially because he was so young,” gastroenterologist Kunjali Padhya MD, says. “But if it helps more people become aware of colorectal cancer, get screened on time, or see a doctor when symptoms appear, maybe that’s a small silver lining. Colorectal cancer screenings are easy to put off until a story like this hits home.”

“Colorectal cancer is most common among people age 50 or older, but I’ve seen patients as young as 14 with this disease,” says Amir Bastawrous, MD, a colorectal surgeon at Swedish. “That’s very rare, but I can tell you in 2020 I’ve treated a half dozen patients under the age of 50 with colorectal cancer.”

Colorectal cancer occurs in the colon, rectum or both, and is the third-most common cancer in adults in the United States. According to the American Cancer Society, incidence rates are 24% higher in non-Hispanic black males and 19% higher in non-Hispanic black females, compared to non-Hispanic whites. Colorectal cancer death rates are 47% higher in non-Hispanic black men and 34% higher in non-Hispanic black women, compared to non-Hispanic white men and women.

If you have a first-degree relative that had colorectal cancer before age 50, you’d usually start 10 years younger than they were when they were diagnosed with colorectal cancer.

The reasons for this are complex and include biological and socioeconomic factors. The American Cancer Society says that Black people have a higher incidence of a more aggressive type of colorectal cancer that can be challenging to treat due to the cancer often being located on the right side of the colon. They are also more likely to lack access to timely screenings and high-fiber foods that promote colon health, increasing their risk of the disease.

The importance of screening

People who do not have a family history of colorectal cancer should get screened at age 45, according to the American Cancer Society. People with a family history of the disease may need to start even younger, Dr. Bastawrous says. “If you have a first-degree relative that had colorectal cancer before age 50, you’d usually start 10 years younger than they were when they were diagnosed with colorectal cancer,” he explains.

Screening types

People need to get screened for colorectal cancer even if they don’t have symptoms. In most people, colorectal cancer cells grow very slowly, and symptoms don’t arise until the disease is more advanced.

People need to get screened for colorectal cancer even if they don’t have symptoms. In most people, colorectal cancer cells grow very slowly, and symptoms don’t arise until the disease is more advanced.

Several screening options are available, such as colonoscopies and a simple, take-home option known as the fecal immunochemical test (FIT). Speak with your primary care doctor about the type of screening that is best for you.

 

Description

Frequency

Colonoscopy

 

 

 

A colonoscopy uses a lighted, flexible tool to view the complete lining of the colon. During this test, the doctor will look for precancerous growths (polyps). This test happens while the patient is asleep (sedated) and requires clearing the colon with medicine (laxatives).

If no polyps are found, this test only needs to be done about once every 10 years.

 

 

FIT

Test

 

 

The FIT tests (including Cologuard) detect hidden blood in the stool and use DNA to detect cancer cells. Your physician will give you the kit to take home with you, along with detailed instructions on how to use it. These tests require that the individual collect samples of their stool.

If results come back negative, your doctor will probably recommend you repeat the test one to two times a year. If positive, then you’ll need a colonoscopy.

 

Which screening is better?

Both types of screenings can detect precancerous polyps in the colon. These polyps are common, occurring in 30 to 50% of adults.

  • Not all polyps will become cancerous.
  • It takes many years for a polyp to become cancerous.
  • If polyps are found during a colonoscopy, the doctor may remove them immediately or take tissue samples (biopsies) for analysis.

“Colonoscopies and FIT tests are both good because they can detect many early colorectal cancers,” says Dr. Padhya. “Regardless of which one you have, the most important thing is to follow your doctor’s recommendations afterward. If you have a positive FIT test, you will need to have a colonoscopy. If you have a colonoscopy and the doctor removes polyps, you’ll need to return for follow-up colonoscopies on a regular schedule.”

“Colonoscopies and FIT tests are both good because they can detect many early colorectal cancers,” says Dr. Padhya. 

Watch for these symptoms

Dr. Padhya notes that Boseman’s cancer probably was not detected through routine screening, since he was so young at the time of his diagnosis (39). That’s why it is important to seek medical care if you experience colorectal cancer symptoms, she says. These symptoms include:

  • Rectal bleeding (the most common symptom)
  • Pain when using the bathroom
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Unexplained new constipation or other changes in bowel habits

For more information on colorectal cancer screenings, speak with your primary care provider. Make sure he or she is aware of any family history of colorectal cancer. And if it’s time for your first (or next) colonoscopy, don’t put it off. It could save your life!

Scheduling a colonoscopy

You can schedule a colorectal cancer screening without a physician referral. To learn more or make an appointment, call the Swedish Digestive Health Institute nurse navigator at 855-411-MyGI (6944).

Related resources

Don’t delay life-saving cancer screenings

How to prepare for a colonoscopy

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional’s instructions.

About the Author

Our philosophy for well being is looking at the holistic human experience. As such, the Swedish Wellness & Lifestyle Team is committed to shining a light on health-related topics that help you live your healthiest life. From nutrition to mindfulness to annual screenings, our team offers clinically-backed advice and tips to help you and your loved ones live life to the fullest.

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