By Cornelius J. Woelk, MD, CCFP, FCFP
It’s not surprising that most of us know someone who has been diagnosed or treated for colon cancer. Colon cancer (or colorectal cancer) is the third most common cancer in Canada and the second most common cause of death from cancer, affecting both men and women. In Manitoba, over 800 individuals will be diagnosed with colon cancer yearly, and about 350 people will die from the disease. Yet, if colon cancer is detected in its earliest stage, there is over a 90% chance of survival.
Colorectal cancer is an abnormal growth in the colon or rectum. It often develops from small growths within the colon or rectum, called polyps. Over the years, polyps may grow in size and number, gradually increasing the risk that some of the cells in the polyps will become cancerous. Most will result in no symptoms at all and many will never cause a problem. Removing polyps by colonoscopy prevents them from changing to cancer.
Colon cancer is highly treatable and curable, if detected early. With screening, it is often preventable. Unfortunately, currently nearly half of those diagnosed find out too late for a cure. Even then, effective treatments for reversing and slowing the disease process are available.
All people between ages 50 and 75 are encouraged to take part in screening every two years. Some situations deserve special attention. New symptoms that should prompt discussion with your doctor include: blood in or on the stool, a persistent change in bowel habits such as the development of diarrhea, constipation, or both, for no apparent reason, persistent cramping, stools that are narrower than usual, abdominal bloating, a continuing need to move your bowels, a feeling of incomplete emptying, unplanned weight loss, and fatigue. However, many people with colon cancer have never had any symptoms, and many people with these symptoms don’t have colon cancer.
Those with a family history of colon cancer or of inherited breast cancer, uterine or ovarian cancer have a higher risk of developing colon cancer. If you have a first degree relative (parent, sibling) with colon cancer, you should get tested 10 years before his/her age of diagnosis. For example, if he/she was diagnosed at age 47, you should begin testing at age 37 years. If you have been diagnosed with polyps in the past, or have a history of inflammatory bowel disease, your risks are higher, and you should talk to your doctor about how screening for colon cancer should work best for you.
Colon cancer is a common life-threatening illness. Yet it is often preventable if caught early. Fecal occult blood testing (checking the stool for blood not visible to the eye) is an easily completed screening test. Speak with your doctor about your risks and whether the test is appropriate for you.
Dr. Cornelius J. Woelk is an Assistant Professor, Department of Family Medicine at the University of Manitoba. He is also the Medical Director for Palliative Care in Southern Health, Medical Director for Boundary Trails Regional Cancer Program hub and a Family Physician at the C.W. Wiebe Medical Centre.
For more information on Colon Cancer Screening, visit Colon Check Manitoba Cancer Care