In many cases, anticipating an unpleasant event is much worse than the reality. Doing your taxes, going to the dentist, and taking out the trash are not high on the list of fun for most people, but we get through them. Like these necessary tasks, getting a colorectal cancer screening is one of those things that most people dread doing. However, it’s not only a necessary part of life, it may actually save your life by catching a deadly cancer before it’s too late. And in reality, the test itself is not that bad – and there are less-invasive, take-home tests that may be right for you.
Colorectal cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the United States, and the second leading cause of cancer death. Your risks go up as you age, and the disease is more common in men and people of African-American descent.
“The good news is that the earlier you catch it, the better your chances for survival. If colorectal cancer is found while it’s still localized – meaning it’s only in the part of the body where it started and hasn’t spread anywhere else – your 5-year survival rate is over 90 percent,” says Brian Copeland, D.O., chief of Gastroenterology for Crozer-Keystone Health System. “However, if colorectal cancer is caught after it has spread, your 5-year survival rate plummets to just over 13 percent.”
Early detection and treatment are the keys to living a healthy and long life after a colorectal cancer diagnosis.
Who Should Be Screened?
“The American Cancer Society encourages people ages 50 and older, or those with a family history, to talk with their doctor about the screening option that is right for them,” says Katie Kortum, Health Systems Manager – Hospitals, East Central Division of the American Cancer Society. “Regular screening can often find colorectal cancer early, when it is most likely to be curable. In many people, screening can also prevent colorectal cancer by finding and removing polyps before they have the chance to turn into cancer.”
If you’re in a higher risk category, you may need to start screening before age 50 and be screened more often. These risks include:
- A personal history of colorectal cancer or polyps.
- A personal history of inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease).
- A strong family history of colorectal cancer or polyps.
- A known family history of a hereditary colorectal cancer syndrome.
“The National Colorectal Cancer Roundtable has set a goal of increasing colorectal cancer screenings to 80 percent by 2018,” says Patricia Hollenback, R.N., B.S.N., OCN, a nurse navigator at Crozer-Keystone Health System. “Achieving this screening goal would prevent more than 277,000 new colorectal cancer cases over the next two decades.”
What Are Your Screening Options?
There are several tests that can be used to look for colorectal polyps and cancer, including a colonoscopy and a simple take-home test called a fecal immunochemical test (FIT).
You’ve probably heard of a colonoscopy before. During this procedure, you will be given a sedative to make you relaxed and sleepy, which will help with the discomfort. The doctor will insert a thin, flexible scope through your rectum. It has a camera on the end to look for abnormalities, and the doctor can remove polyps or take samples of anything that looks suspicious during the exam. If your exam results are clear, you should repeat the test once every 10 years.
The preparation for a colonoscopy is usually the worst part for most people. You’ll have to drink clear liquids the night before and take strong laxatives that will clear out your bowels.
“After the exam, you may feel some cramping and bloating,” Copeland says. “However, most people return to feeling normal after the sedative has worn off. Since you’ve taken a sedative, you’ll need someone to drive you home from the appointment.”
Another option is the FIT test, which involves taking a sample of your stool at home and submitting it to a lab for testing. The test looks for hidden blood in the stool, which can be an early sign of polyps and colorectal cancer. The FIT test should be performed once a year.
Your doctor may recommend other options, and you should discuss which test is right for you. The best test, ultimately, is the one that you’ll actually get done at the recommended intervals.
If you’ve been putting off your colorectal cancer screening out of fear or embarrassment, don’t wait any longer. The anticipation is worse than the test, and just may save your life.