3D image of the intestines with the large intestine highlighted in orange.According to the American Cancer Society, improvements in prevention, detection and treatment have helped more than a million people in the United States overcome colon and rectum cancer, also known as colorectal cancer. In honor of Colon Cancer Awareness Month in March, here are five things that make colon cancer screening invaluable.

1. Screening is important because of how colon cancer develops

It begins when polyps (abnormal tissue growths) become cancerous, and screening can help identify polyps before they get to that stage. If a polyp has already become cancerous, early detection can identify the cancer before it spreads to other parts of the body.

Colonoscopy is the current standard but not the only method of screening. Jill Allen, MD, Clinical Director of Gastrointestinal Oncology at Mass General says, “other options include computed tomographic colonography (CTC), fecal immunochemistry stool testing (FIT), flexible sigmoidoscopy, multitargeted fecal DNA and guaiac-based fecal occult blood (gFOBT). You should talk with your physician about the procedure that is best for you.”

2. Most people start getting screened at age 50 with a few caveats

Dr. Allen says, “If you have additional risk factors like a family history of colon cancer, polyps or a genetic syndrome in the family,” you should talk with your doctor to determine when to start screening for colon cancer.

3. The short-term discomforts of screening are worth the potential long-term benefits

There’s no sugarcoating it. Colonoscopies can be unpleasant. To many patients, the worst part is the pre-screening process, which often can involve odd-tasting formulas and a high number of bowel movements to cleanse the bowel.

The doctor will examine the colon using a flexible tube about the width of a finger with a camera inside. This is called a “colonoscope,” and it is inserted into the patient’s rectum. Most polyps can be removed through the colonoscopy eliminating the growth before it becomes malignant. Patients are usually sedated and may not remember the procedure after it’s done. And the side effects, ranging from stomach cramps to gassiness, are typically mild. However, a couple days of discomfort is a small price to pay for something that might just save your life.

4. Anyone could develop colon cancer, but there are certain high-risk factors

  • Being over 50 years old
  • A diet high in animal fats and low in fruits and vegetables
  • A personal or family history of colon cancer
  • Obesity
  • Alcohol and/or tobacco consumption
  • Race—research suggests African Americans and Hispanics are at greater risk
  • Having inflammatory bowel disease

5. Early detection can be a literal life saver

Addressing colon cancer early gives doctors more options for treatments and often leads to higher survival rates. A person with colon cancer may be experiencing noticeable symptoms, but that is not always the case. Because of that, getting screened at the proper time is immensely important.

For more information about colorectal cancer, visit the American Cancer Society.

To schedule a screening appointment, please call 617-726-2426 or make an appointment request online.