When should I start getting tested?
In February, the American Cancer Society updated its screening guidelines for colorectal cancer, lowering the screening age from 50 to 45.
This means that if you are in perfect health – no symptoms, no family history, no high-risk conditions – you should start screening at age 45.
For people with risk factors, including inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis, your doctor will likely recommend that you start testing immediately.
Another important risk factor is the existence of a family history of colon polyps – small, usually harmless clumps of cells that can become cancerous and which, if caught in time, can be removed even before they become tumors.
This is a topic worth getting over the embarrassment of talking to your family about.
Is it difficult to get tested?
The fact that colon cancer screenings are invasive, unpleasant and often expensive is a significant deterrent for both healthcare providers and patients.
The dreaded colonoscopy is considered, as Ng says, “the absolute gold standard in colon cancer screening,” because this procedure allows doctors to find and remove polyps before they become cancerous.
Complications from colonoscopy are very rare and usually only occur in patients over 75 years of age, so apart from the general inconvenience there is no need to be overly concerned.
If for some reason colonoscopy is not an option for you, Ms Ng says that “all screening is better than no screening”.
A handful of countries use stool-based home tests as the test of choice for screenings, and these can be quite effective at detecting cancers at an early stage.
Disadvantage ? They need to be done every year and, if something goes wrong, you will still need to have a colonoscopy.
What are the symptoms ?
If you are under 45 and notice symptoms of colon cancer, you should ask your doctor for a test.
It is a bit difficult to identify the symptoms of colorectal cancerbecause they often look like something less serious or a weird phase that your body is going through.
The key, Ms. Ng said, is to pay attention to how long the problem persists.
If it’s been more than a few weeks or the situation gets worse, this is a very clear sign that you need to get tested.
Symptoms range from the most obvious (rectal bleeding or bloody stools) to the most general (abdominal pain, fatigue, involuntary weight loss, anemia, shortness of breath on exertion).
Of course, you’ll still be a little out of breath on the treadmill, but take note if speeds that would normally be a snap suddenly leave you panting.
The same goes for any abnormality in the stool that lasts longer than a simple poorly digested meal:
If they find something serious, what happens next?
With regular testing, doctors can often detect and remove polyps before they become cancerous.
But if a tumor has formed, the prognosis in stage I is still quite good: a five-year survival rate of over 90%.
Usually, stages I and II only require a simple procedure to remove the cancerous area.
Stage III means the cancer has spread to regional lymph nodes near the tumor, and at this stage chemo or radiation therapy will likely be needed.
In stage IV, the five-year survival rate drops to 14%. (For what it’s worth, Chadwick Bosemanwas diagnosed at stage III and progressed to stage IV).
This is why it is so important to educate people about screening tests: Doctors want to detect these diseases as soon as possible.