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image of a doctor talking to patient in front of windowColorectal cancer is the third most common cancer among both men and women in the United States. It begins in the colon or rectum and when found early is highly treatable, which is why being screened for it is so important. More than 90 percent of colorectal cancer cases occur in individuals over 50 years old, so The American Cancer Society recommends that colorectal cancer screening should start at age 45.  Speak with your primary care provider about your family’s health history and the best time for you to begin having colonoscopies.

Screening can find precancerous polyps— abnormal growths in the colon or rectum—so that they can be removed before they turn into cancer. Early stages of colorectal cancer usually present no symptoms, which instead tend to appear as the cancer progresses. Several screening tests detect colorectal cancer early, when it can be easily and successfully treated by removing polyps (grape-like growths on the wall of the intestine) before they become cancerous.

A colonoscopy is the best screening test available for colorectal cancer and the only screening test that also prevents many colorectal cancers. Here are a few things you should know about this test:

  • During a colonoscopy, a gastroenterologist (a doctor specially trained in digestive tract diseases) examines the lining of your entire colon to check for polyps or tumors. If any polyps are found, they can be removed immediately.
  • On the day of the colonoscopy, you will receive medication to help you relax. The procedure is painless and most people fall asleep and do not remember much about the test when they wake up.
  • The doctor performs a colonoscopy by inserting a long, thin, flexible tube called a colonoscope into your colon through the rectum. The tube has a tiny video camera and light at the end that sends images to a video monitor.
  • Before the procedure, you will receive instructions from your doctor on what to eat and how to empty your bowel.
  • Both men and women should have a colonoscopy starting at age 50. People at increased risk of colorectal cancer may start earlier, depending on your doctor’s instructions. Your doctor will tell you in how many years you will need another colonoscopy.

If you are unable to have a colonoscopy, your doctor can give you information about the following tests and how often they should be performed:

  • Sigmoidoscopy
  • Double contrast barium enema
  • Virtual colonoscopy (CT colonoscopy)
  • Fecal occult blood test
  • DNA stool tests

You should note that these tests are not as thorough as a colonoscopy. If polyps or tumors are suspected based on these tests, you will still need to have a colonoscopy.

“Am I at risk for getting colorectal cancer?”

Certain family history and lifestyle factors can increase your risk for colorectal cancer:

Age — Colorectal cancer is more common in people over the age of 50.

Personal and family history — People who have a parent, sibling or child with colorectal cancer are at a higher risk of developing it themselves, especially if the family member was diagnosed before the age of 60. People who have had colorectal cancer are at higher risk of another colorectal cancer.

Race — African-American men and women are at higher risk. The reasons for this are not fully understood.

Jews of eastern European descent — About 6% of American Jews who are of eastern European descent have DNA changes that increase their risk of colorectal cancer.

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) — IBD, which includes ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, puts you at a higher risk of developing colorectal cancer.

Lifestyle — Being overweight, having an inactive lifestyle, a diet high in red meat and processed meat, smoking, and heavy alcohol use can increase your risk of colorectal cancer.

“What are the symptoms of colorectal cancer?”

Any of the following symptoms should be checked out by your doctor. Although they occur in people who have colorectal cancer, they can also be caused by a number of other treatable conditions:

  • A change in bowel habits that lasts more than a few weeks
  • A feeling of having to have a bowel movement that doesn’t go away even after doing so
  • Rectal bleeding, dark stools, or blood in the stool
  • Stomach discomfort, including bloating or steady abdominal pain
  • Unexplained weakness or fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss

If you’re 50 or older and have not had a colonoscopy, this month is a great time to schedule one here at Community Health Connections. If you’re over 50 and haven’t had a colonoscopy in 10 or more years, it’s time to schedule another one. Contact us today for more information and to schedule your appointment.

Fitchburg Community Health Center

Community Health Connections fitchburg

326 Nichols Road, Fitchburg, MA
978-878-8100

Gardner Community Health Center

Community Health Connections Gardner

175 Connors Street, Gardner, MA
978-878-8100

Leominster Community Health Center

Community Health Connections Leominster

14 Manning Avenue, Leominster, MA
978-878-8100

ACTION Community Health Center

Community Health Connections Action

130 Water Street, Fitchburg, MA
978-878-8100

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