10 Things Doctors Want You to Know About Colon Cancer

  • Mature woman blowing dandelion flower
    You may be able to avoid getting this common cancer.
    Colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death in the United States, expected to kill about 50,000 Americans in 2016. Survival rates have improved in recent years to 91% if the cancer is caught early–but most patients aren’t diagnosed until the cancer has spread. Plus, the disease can be avoided entirely through screening tests that find and remove noncancerous growths before they have a chance to turn into cancer. Here’s what colon cancer experts want you know.

  • senior patient talking to doctor
    “You can feel great and still have early colon cancer.”
    "Colon cancer at its early stages generally has no symptoms," says Dr. Michael Kreines, MD, a gastroenterologist at the Ohio Gastroenterology & Liver Institute. The same is true for colon polyps, which are small growths that can sometimes become cancerous. “People say, ‘I don’t have any problems–I feel fine,’” and too often put off important screening tests, says Dr. Kreines. (Symptoms to bring to a doctor's attention include rectal bleeding, changes in bowel habits, and unexplained anemia or weight loss.)

  • Female doctor explaining reports on digital tablet to patient with nurse writing notes in background
    “The best way to prevent colon cancer is to get a colonoscopy.”
    “For most people, colon cancer is preventable," says Dr. Kreines. Doctors can find small growths called polyps in the colon before they’ve turned cancerous and remove them. The preferred way to do this, he says, is via the colonoscopy–an outpatient procedure that lets doctors see inside your colon via a lighted tube inserted in the rectum. If polyps are found, they can usually be removed right then and there.

  • Female Patient Being Reassured By Doctor In Hospital Room
    “Don’t let worries and fears about colonoscopy keep you from getting one.”
    About one-third of Americans ages 50 to 75 (23 million people) haven’t had their recommend colonoscopies. Why not? Dr. Craig Reickert, MD, a colon and rectal surgeon at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, blames “squeamishness,” noting that “some people are a little nervous about having anything put in their rectum.” Many may also dread the laxative prep process needed beforehand, but, says Dr. Reickert, “it’s usually not horrible to go through.” People may fear pain during the procedure but most are sedated and “completely comfortable,” he adds.

  • doctor-explaining-the-details-of-a-x-ray-picture-to-his-patient
    “A normal colonoscopy means you can go 10 years without further tests.”
    Colonoscopies are recommended for people at average risk of the disease starting at age 50 and going through 75. If you don't have any polyps or other problems, you don't need another test for the next 10 years. If you have polyps–particularly the type of polyp that is precancerous–“we’d recommend checking you every five years,” says Dr. Reickert.

  • Visiting mom
    “Some people have higher risk and need to start screening sooner.”
    People with close family members who have had colorectal cancer should be seen 10 years earlier than the age at which the relative was diagnosed, says Dr. Kreines: “So if your father got colon cancer at 55, you would generally start your screening at age 45.” If you have other risk factors–such as being African American, having a history of Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, or having a family history of precancerous polyps–you should start screening at age 40 to 45, says Dr. Reickert.

  • Stool test
    “If you can’t do a colonoscopy, there are alternatives.”
    “If someone doesn’t want or can’t have a colonoscopy, there are other techniques available,” says Dr. Kreines. One option: tests that detect DNA from colon cancer and blood in your stool. This type of testing is “not nearly 100%, but it does pick up a substantial portion of lesions,” says Dr. Kreines. However, notes Dr. Reickert, “it’s not as good at detecting precancerous polyps.” Also, if something is found, you’ll have to have a colonoscopy, plus fecal tests need to be repeated every 1 to 3 years, depending on the test.

  • chemotherapy syringe and vial
    “New therapies are helping improve treatment.”
    If you are found to have colon cancer and require chemotherapy, doctors can individualize treatment based on the genetic properties of your cancer, rather than applying a one-size-fits-all approach, says Dr. Reickert. Other new therapies, says Dr. Tony Reid, MD, an oncologist at Moores Cancer Center at UC San Diego Health, include “drugs that impact the blood flow to a tumor and drugs targeted to specific proteins expressed by the tumor.” Progress also is being made in immune therapy, he says, which helps your immune system fight off cancer.

  • Female patient listening to doctor
    “Colon cancer surgery doesn’t automatically mean a colostomy.”
    One common misconception held by colon cancer patients is that they are going to wind up needing a colostomy, says Dr. Reickert, “but that is not true,” noting that most colon cancer surgeries do not require this. Also, surgical methods in recent years have improved, Dr. Reickert says, so “a lot of the cancers can be managed with minimally invasive or laparoscopic or robotic surgery”–which means you are likely to recover more quickly and comfortably.

  • Drinking water
    “Living a healthy lifestyle can help prevent colon cancer.”
    Maintaining an ideal body weight can help you avoid cancer, says Dr. Reickert. He advises eating a high-fiber diet, with lots of fruits and vegetables, while limiting your intake of processed meats. These steps have been associated with “a subtly reduced risk of colon and rectal cancer.” Having a healthy diet alone won’t keep you from getting colon polyps, he says, but “can contribute to reducing your risk of cancers.”

  • Senior father and son talking while having coffee on sofa
    “Spread the word about screening to your loved ones.”
    If you have a colonoscopy and “you found it was a reasonably good experience,” Dr. Kreines recommends you share this information with others to encourage them not to fear the procedure: “It’s important for people to accept and understand screening and not be embarrassed by it.” Dr. Reickerts notes that his colon cancer patients are “generally champions for telling their loved ones go get checked now” because the colonoscopy is “a lot easier” than being treated for colon cancer.

10 Things Doctors Want You to Know About Colon Cancer

About The Author

Lorna Collier has been reporting on health topics—especially mental health and women’s health—as well as technology and education for more than 25 years. Her work has appeared in the AARP Bulletin, Chicago Tribune, U.S. News, CNN.com, the APA’s Monitor on Psychology, and many others. She’s a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the Association of Health Care Journalists.
  1. Colorectal Cancer Tests Save Lives. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/colorectalcancerscreening/
  2. Siegel RL, Miller KD, and Jemal, A. Cancer statistics, 2016. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. 2016;66:7-30.
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Sep 2
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