Early Detection is the Best Tool Against Colorectal Cancer
Part One of a Two-Part Series
Sometimes some things are best left unsaid. This does not apply to your health, including sensitive subjects like your colon and rectum. Colorectal cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer and needlessly claims more deaths than another other cancer besides lung cancer.
Although the rate of colorectal cancer has decreased nationally 1% every year since the mid-1980s, the American Cancer Society stats show it has increased 2% each year among younger adults since the mid-1990s. This decline applied to Arizona’s non-Hispanic white people but not Hispanics and other racial and ethnic groups in Arizona.1 So let’s talk.
A Chain of Events
Your colon and rectum are located at the end of a long line of digestive activity. Anything you eat that your body can’t use ends up in your colon and out of your body through the rectum. Normally you don’t think about this process until you have problems. But not all problems produce symptoms.
“You can get growths on the lining inside the colon or the rectum,” said Alex Guzman Garcia, a certified physician assistant at Clinica La Camilia in Mesa, Arizona. “The growth is called a polyp.”
Polyps can occur in anyone’s colon, but the risk increases as you age. About one in three people 45 years and older have polyps,2 often without symptoms. A polyp isn’t always cancerous but should be removed so it doesn’t develop into cancer.
“If it’s cancerous,” Guzman Garcia said, “it can continue to grow and make its way deeper into the lining. At that point, it can spread to other parts of the body by traveling through blood vessels and lymph nodes.”
The exact reason why colorectal cancer happens is still not known, but certain risk factors are clearly linked to this disease: an unhealthy diet, tobacco smoking, heavy alcohol use and a family history. The ACS recommends you get a colonoscopy when you turn 45. The earlier colorectal cancer is detected the better chances you have of surviving it.
“As you get older,” Guzman Garcia said, “you typically get at a higher risk for cancer. If there are other factors involved like a family history, you should get the test sooner. If you’re past 50, the light bulb should go off that you need to get a colonoscopy.”
Your body may show symptoms to let you know something’s amiss. You might have abdominal pain. Or your bowel habits may change. You might experience unusual constipation, diarrhea or bloat or see changes in the shape of your stool — are they getting more narrow? Is there blood in your stool? Do they look darker?
“These are red flags that need to be addressed,” Guzman Garcia said. “They can be early symptoms and signs of colon cancer.”
But not everyone wants to give a toilet report.
“‘Oh I’m bleeding from my rectum,’” Guzman Garcia gave an example. “Who wants to tell someone about that? Patients can be embarrassed or they don’t want to take time off of work for a colonoscopy. They put it off and put it off, but the cancer, if they have it, tends to advance and you run into problems.”
Do Your Duty
One reason why colorectal cancer deaths have dropped is because of better screening. That’s the best way to find out what’s going on in your colon and rectum. You have three choices: A stool test that detects hidden blood, a sigmoidoscopy that checks the lower part of your large intestine, and a colonoscopy that checks the upper and lower parts of your large intestine and removes polyps.
“I am most comfortable when a colonoscopy is done,” said Guzman Garcia. “That’s your gold standard. No patient should steer away from that, especially if they’re at that age, above 45 years old.”
The prep for a colonoscopy is, admittedly, rigorous. But the test is low-risk and if you get a good result, you don’t need another one for 10 years.
“At the end of the day,” Guzman Garcia reasoned, “you could possibly have cancer and have to deal with chemo and all that. Or you spend the three days prepping for the test and find out you don’t have it or catch it early enough.
“Most of my patients say it wasn’t that bad,” Guzman Garcia added. “I know the prep is easily the part that bothers people the most because it’s a lot of pooping that they have to do. But the test is 30 minutes, maybe a little longer if they have to remove polyps, but you won’t feel anything because you’re asleep. I have never had anyone say they’d never do it again.”
Find out what you and your family can do to prevent colorectal cancer in our March 24 article. Visit our YouTube channel on March 15 to view a special Cafecito Time con Equality Health on colorectal cancer. Host Maria Rebozo-La Pine and her special guest Livia Arevalo share more facts and insights to help you make the best choices for your colon health.
Published in Prensa Arizona, 3/10/2022