March is Colon Cancer Prevention Month: What you should know about colon cancer

March 13, 2012 Richard H. Driscoll, Jr., M.D.

Colon cancer remains one of the most prevalent cancers in the US, affecting 1 in 18 Americans during an average lifetime. This year, more than 143,000 new cases and 51,000 deaths are expected (only lung cancer kills more women and men than colon cancer). Men and women are affected equally. Age is a major risk factor with dramatic increases in colon cancer after age 50. A family history of colon cancer is another major risk factor that accounts for approximately one third of all cases. A family history in a first degree relative (parent or sibling) portrays a lifetime risk of colon cancer of 10-33%.

Colon cancer for the most part is a preventable disease. Incidence and death rates have been declining for the past 20 years because of increased use of screening tests and better treatments. However, only about 6 in 10 adults are up to date on getting screened for colon cancer. Most colon cancers arise from a preexisting noncancerous growth referred to as an adenomatous polyp. The hallmark of colon cancer screening is to identify those individuals who form precancerous polyps, and to have them removed non-surgically through colonoscopy.

Colonoscopy is the gold standard for colon cancer screening because of its accuracy in identifying small cancers and polyps and, the ability to remove them in one outpatient procedure. Colonoscopy has been found to significantly reduce colon cancer deaths by greater than 50%. This number compares favorably with mammography for breast cancer in women.

Colonoscopy may be the most unloved cancer screening test. However, the procedure itself is painless with proper sedation. Its risk is minimal when performed by experienced gastrointestinal endoscopists (gastroenterologists). If you are 50 years or older and/or have a family member with colon cancer/precancerous polyp, please discuss with your physician concerning your need for colonoscopy. He or she can then refer you to a skilled gastroenterologist for this important outpatient procedure.

(Ed. Note: People often say the worst part of colonoscopy is the prep – you can see videos about what it's like, and more information about colon cancer and screening, on our Pinterest board. Also, stop by our booth at the Mercer Island Half Marathon on Sunday, March 25, an event benefiting colon cancer prevention.)

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