Colon Cancer: Know the Warning Signs

Colon Cancer: Know the Warning Signs

Colon Cancer: Know the Warning Signs

Many of us may not even think much about our colon or know what it does. But, it is an important part of our digestive tract and plays a big role in our well-being. With March being  Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month it may be a good time to schedule a preventive screening. As the third leading cause of cancer death in the U.S., early detection is important. It used to be a disease that people over 50 got, but, an American Cancer Society study showed the disease becoming more common in younger people.1

How does the colon work?
The colon, also called the large intestine, removes water and nutrients from digested food. It’s part of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, the organs that our food flows through as it’s being digested.

Small growths, called polyps, may appear along the colon lining. A colonoscopy can help find these growths and possible cancers early on, when treatment is more useful, and the chance of recovery is higher.

Warning Signs
Until it has grown or spread, colon cancer does not often have symptoms. But, there may be some warning signs:

  • Change in bowel habits or the shape of the stool that lasts more than a few days and isn’t caused by a change in diet
  • Cramping and/or stomach pain
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Anemia, which causes symptoms such as weakness, excessive fatigue and sometimes shortness of breath
  • Bleeding from the rectum
  • Blood in the stool or in the toilet after having a bowel movement
  • Dark or black stools
  • An urge to have a bowel movement when the bowel is empty

One or more of these signs may cause your doctor to suggest a colon screening.

Why it is important to get screened?

What to expect

Early detection by screening is key. Catching it early gives you a better chance at successful treatment. While recommendations are for all people 50 to 75 years old to get screened, research finds that rates of colorectal cancer have been growing in people younger than 55 since at least the mid-1990s. 2

If you have a family history of the disease or have other health issues that could lead to colorectal cancer, your doctor may want you to get screened earlier. Talk to your doctor about what screening choices are best for you and whether more frequent testing is needed.

There are simple and noninvasive ways to make it easier for you to complete your screening and give you some peace of mind. Talk to your health care provider (doctor, nurse practitioner, physician assistant, etc.) about which screening choice is right for you. It may be more than one. Each test has advantages and disadvantages. The test you and your health care provider choose may depend on your preferences, your medical condition, and your benefits. 

Tests include:

  1. Colonoscopy is the most common preventive screening tool. A doctor uses a colonoscope — a flexible, lighted tube with an attached camera — to look at the whole rectum and colon for signs of cancer. The doctor can even remove precancerous polyps during the test, preventing you from getting cancer.

    Some people may avoid a colonoscopy because it sounds painful. But the test is quick and painless. You are asleep during the test, and it takes less than an hour.

    Other screening options are available, based on your doctor’s recommendation:
  1. A fecal occult blood test: A lab scans a stool sample for blood, a possible sign of cancer. Fecal Immunochemical Testing(FIT) - uses antibodies to spot blood in the stool. Fecal Immunochemical Testing(FIT)-DNA – combines the FIT with a test that finds changed DNA in the stool.

  2. Sigmoidoscopy: This method looks only at the rectum and the lower colon.

  3. Virtual colonoscopy: A CT scan gives detailed images of the colon.

Prepping for your colonoscopy:
It isn’t hard and involves just a little bit of discomfort.

  • You’ll get preparation orders to follow at home before your procedure. This most often involves some type of food restriction and the use of a laxative or enema kit.
  • The gastroenterologist will perform a colonoscopy using a colonoscope —a long, flexible, thin tube with a light and tiny camera on one end to look inside the rectum and the colon.
  • During a colonoscopy, samples of tissues may be taken for testing or removal.

Is a stay overnight required?
You won’t have to stay overnight after your procedure, but you will need to have someone drive you home. In some cases, driving is not allowed for 24 hours. Your doctor will decide how often you need to be tested   based on whether you have certain risk factors for colon cancer or a family history of the disease.

Once a health care provider is found, members should call and verify that the provider is in network for their specific procedure. Be sure to have your insurance ID card on hand to help the provider or office staff decide if they are in network.

Is colon cancer preventable?
Only five to 10 percent of colon cancers are a direct result of heredity. Most colon cancers happen independently.3 So, while there is no sure way of preventing colon cancer, you can adopt preventive measures that might lower your risk. These healthy lifestyle tips may help to protect your colon:

  • Eat a diet that’s high in fruits, vegetables and fiber.
  • Stay away from red, grilled and processed meat.
  • Avoid smoking, heavy use of alcohol and inactive lifestyles.
  • Exercise
  • Keep your weight in check.

 Learn more about this and other recommended health screenings in our Adult Wellness Guidelines. For details about your benefit coverage, log in to your Blue Access for MembersSM.