Colorectal cancer—cancer of the colon and/or rectum—is the third most common type of cancer in men and women in the United States according to the National Cancer Institute1. This year, an estimated 95,000 Americans will be diagnosed, and nearly 50,000 will die from it2.
Colorectal cancer is treatable, and often curable, when localized to the bowel. As with most cancers, the earlier it is detected, the higher your chance of survival. Early on, colorectal cancer does not usually cause any noticeable symptoms. Most colorectal cancers develop first as polyps, which are abnormal growths inside the colon or rectum that may later become cancerous if not removed. In most cases, by the time people do have symptoms the cancer is advanced and very hard to treat.
• Over age 50
• Family history of polyps or colon cancer
• Ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease—conditions that cause inflammation of the colon
Risk increases dramatically after age 50—the National Cancer Institute states that 90% of all colorectal cancers are diagnosed after this age. The death rate from colorectal cancer has decreased thanks to early detection with the use of colonoscopies and fecal occult blood tests, which check for blood in the stool. However, those who are in the high-risk age group avoid getting a colonoscopy. According to the American Cancer Society, only 59% of those over age 50 are being screened consistently3.
People may think they are not at risk because they do not have a family history, go to the bathroom regularly without problems or they do not see blood in their stool. However, it is important to remember that anyone can develop colorectal cancer; the risk factors simply mean you have a higher chance of developing it. Symptoms often do not appear until the cancer is advanced, which is why it is imperative to be screened starting at age 50.
Screening for colorectal cancer can include a sigmoidoscopy and/or a colonoscopy. Your doctor will look for signs of cancer such as polyps, which are growths on the lining of the colon that can become cancerous. A sigmoidoscopy lets your doctor look at part of the colon and the rectum, while a colonoscopy lets your doctor closely see the inside of the entire colon and rectum.
Most people do not find the exam itself painful and consider the bowel preparation the worst part of these tests. For the doctor to see your insides clearly your colon needs to be as cleaned out as possible, so they will likely have you take strong laxatives the day before.
If a small polyp is found, the doctor may remove it during the test and have it biopsied to determine whether it is cancerous. Removing polyps can help prevent colorectal cancer from ever starting.
Speak with your health care provider about how often you need these screenings. Typically, those ages 50 to 75 not at high risk will have a routine sigmoidoscopy once every 5 years and/or a routine colonoscopy once every ten years. Tests of a stool sample may also be recommended. Compass Rose Health Plan members receive 100% coverage on routine colorectal cancer screenings when seen by a network provider and performed in the recommended increments. To learn more about the Compass Rose Health Plan’s coverage, see page 31 of our 2017 FEHB Plan Brochure at www.compassrosebenefits.com/Brochure.
It is vital to your health that you talk with your doctor to understand your risk for colorectal cancer and the guidelines you should follow for testing.