Colon Cancer: The Basics of Screening

As the country mourns the loss of esteemed actor Chadwick Boseman, who died of colon cancer on August 28, colon cancer screening and prevention is in the national limelight. Colon cancer is the third most common cancer in the U.S., and also the third most deadly. Here’s a key fact you should know about colon cancer: It is highly preventable,and even curable, if caught early.

In fact, if colon cancer is detected early, 90% of people survive; if the disease is caught in later stages, only 14% survive.

The problem is: colon cancer often has no symptoms in its earliest stages when the chance of a cure is highest. By the time patients develop symptoms– fatigue (from low iron and bleeding), constipation, pain, and weight loss – the disease is already advanced and spread past the colon. Cure at this later stage is very difficult.

The first step you can take is to talk to your doctor to see if you are up to date on getting screened. Screening is proven to lower chances of getting (and dying from) colon cancer.

How does colon cancer screening protect you?

  • Colon cancer starts out as a pre-cancerous polyp, which is a growth of cells in the colon. Over time (often months to years) this polyp transforms into cancer.
  • Screening increases the chance of finding and quickly removing precancerous polyps before they turn into colon cancer – like uprooting a weed.

There are many effective ways to screen for colon cancer. The most studied, proven methods include:

  • Testing your stool for tiny traces of blood or cancerous DNA (one of the earliest signs something is amiss). This test is done once a year, and abnormal tests should be followed up with an immediate colonoscopy for further investigation.
  • Colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy, a procedure using a thin fiberoptic camera to inspect the colon. This may sound nerve-wracking, but don’t worry – thanks to sedating medication used before the procedure, patients can’t feel what’s happening. This test is repeated once every 5-10 years (more frequently if high-risk polyps were found on any of the screening procedures).