Colon Cancer: What You Need to Know

Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States; however, about only 60 percent of patients in the Tristate area who should undergo a colonoscopy, which helps screen for colon cancer, actually do.

 "This is one of the few cancers we know we can decrease the risk of by doing a preventive exam," says Dr. Carmen Meier , a gastroenterologist at the TriHealth Digestive Institute .

Colon Cancer: What is It?

Colon - or colorectal - cancer, is cancer that starts in the large intestine (colon) or rectum (end of the colon).

Risk factors for colon cancer include:

  • Being older than age 60
  • Eating a lot of red or processed meats
  • Having colorectal polyps
  • Having inflammatory bowel disease
  • Having a family history of colon cancer
  • Having a personal history of breast cancer

A colorectal polyp, which is a growth on the lining of the colon or rectum, does not always indicate cancer, but Dr. Meier warns that it's better to get screened than not. "We know that a quarter of the population over the age of 50 has polyps," she says. "There are different kinds of polyps, but a lot of times you can't really tell until we look under the microscope."

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Colon Cancer?

Unfortunately, many types of colon cancers do not show symptoms until they are advanced. "I will get patients who come in and say, 'I've had none of these symptoms, so I must be OK.' That's not necessarily true," Dr. Meier points out. However, she says there are certain signs to be aware of, including:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Blood in the stool
  • Bloating
  • Constipation, diarrhea or other changes in bowel habits
  • Narrowed stool
  • Unexplained weight loss

She also stresses that everybody over the age of 50 should undergo a regular colonoscopy screening every ten years, as well as an annual stool test to check for hidden blood in the stool. "We know that helps detect polyps and that helps prevent colon cancer," Dr. Meier says.

Certain lifestyle changes can minimize one's risk for developing colon cancer, as well. These include:

  • Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables
  • Limiting red meat intake
  • Not smoking
  • Avoiding heavy alcohol intake

Colonoscopy: How Does it Work?

A colonoscopy is an exam that views the inside of the colon and rectum using a tool called a colonoscope, which has a small camera attached to a flexible tube that can reach the length of the colon. Polyps may be removed if they are found during the exam.

Preparation:
Preparation usually involves fasting for about six hours beforehand, and drinking plenty of clear liquids - like black coffee or tea, gelatin, fat-free broth, sports drinks, strained fruit juices or water - for one to three days before the test.

Your doctor may also direct you to take a laxative the day or night before to fully clean out your large intestine.

The Exam
While many people typically put off scheduling their colonoscopy because they're embarrassed or concerned about discomfort, Dr. Meier reminds people that the exam is relatively painless. "We give medications before the procedure that just put most people into a nap. Essentially, most people sleep through it, and it's not really a big issue," she says.

The procedure itself lasts about 30 minutes, but may last longer, depending on whether polyps need to be removed. Most people can expect to be at the facility for about two-and-half hours to account for a pre-exam consultation, to get their IV started and have a brief period for recovery. "We let you wake up and then usually give you something to drink," she says. 

After the Exam

You will feel slightly sleepy for a period of time. You may have a headache or feel nauseous; however, this is not common.

You should be able to go home about an hour after the exam. Plan to schedule a ride home because the medication taken prior to surgery will make you feel groggy.

Tags: Cancer, Digestive

Last Updated: March 3, 2017