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10 Things to Know About Colorectal Cancer

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Whew! A tour of the American College of Gastroenterology’s website to learn more about colorectal cancer can be a real eye-opener!

Despite the information overload, it’s a tour worth taking, especially if -- like me -- you have a first-degree relative who has suffered through colorectal cancer.

Here are 10 important items I learned and which are worth sharing in the interest of Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, every March:

1. Cancer of the colon and/or rectum is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths behind lung cancer. Yet if polyps on the colon are caught early through routine screenings, the cancer can be prevented.

2. Colorectal cancer most commonly occurs after age 50, but it can strike at younger ages. The risk of developing colorectal cancer increases with age.

3. Among those considered at a higher than average risk for colorectal cancer are those with a previous diagnosis of colon polyps, those with a family history of the disease, and those with inflammatory bowel disease or another chronic digestive condition.

4. Screening guidelines from the ACG call for a colonoscopy every 10 years as the preferred method of cancer prevention.

5. A relatively new annual test called fecal immunochemical testing (FIT) is available, which detects blood hidden in the stool. A positive test leads to a colonoscopy.

6. If you can’t stand the idea of a colonoscopy, get over it! Well, that’s a bit harsh. Ask your doctor about alternatives such as flexible sigmoidoscopy, “virtual colonoscopy” through CT scans, and fecal DNA testing. Chances are, though, your doctor will recommend a colonoscopy anyway.

7. While routine colonoscopies begin at age 50 for most individuals, age 45 is the recommendation for African-Americans. That comes out of recent studies finding a higher incidence of colorectal cancer among African-Americans. Also, compared with other ethnic groups, blacks are diagnosed with colorectal cancer at a younger age and die from it at higher rates.

8. It makes sense to let a gastroenterologist perform your colonoscopy, rather than a primary care physician. Gastroenterologists have higher levels of training in the procedure.

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Symptoms can vary depending on the location of a tumor. The right colon is spacious. Accordingly, cancers of the right colon (ascending colon and cecum) tend to grow outwards from one location in the bowel wall. They can become quite large before causing any abdominal symptoms.

Right-sided cancers typically cause iron deficiency anemia, leading to fatigue, weakness, and shortness of breath. Rarely do right-sided cancers obstruct feces.

The left colon is narrower than the right colon. As a result, cancers of the left colon tend to develop around the colon, and can obstruct the bowel the way a napkin ring would.

Left-sided cancers present with symptoms such as constipation, narrowed stool, diarrhea, abdominal pains, cramps, and bloating. Blood in the stool may also be symptomatic of a growth near the end of the left colon or rectum.


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March 8, 2012 - 1:44pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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