9 Things You May Not Know About Colon Cancer

Answers to your questions about colonoscopies and more from a cancer expert.
Doctor performs colorectal cancer screening colonoscopy

A few years ago, the death of actor Chadwick Boseman -- most famous for his lead role in the blockbuster Black Panther -- shocked movie lovers everywhere. He was only 43 and died of colon cancer, a condition he kept private.

Unfortunately, death from colon cancer at a relatively young age isn’t as unusual as it used to be. According to the American Cancer Society, the number of adults under 55 diagnosed with colorectal cancer is nearly double that of 10 years ago.

The good news is, colorectal cancer is treatable when caught early, and colonoscopies are the single best test for detecting and removing any problems early on. "Colonoscopies aren’t just a procedure. They are a serious investment in your health,” says Christopher Anker, MD, a radiation oncologist at The University of Vermont Medical Center. “They give you the opportunity to detect and prevent colorectal cancer before it takes hold." In fact, the American Cancer Society updated its age recommendation in 2018 to start regular colorectal screenings at age 45. 

Here Dr. Anker answers some of the most frequently asked questions about colon cancer. But probably the most important question is, “When are you making your appointment?”

Q+A: Colon Cancer Prevention

What happens during a colonoscopy?

The doctor uses a thin, flexible tube called a colonoscope with a tiny camera attached and moves it slowly through your rectum and into your colon. Carbon dioxide gas is used to inflate your colon so the doctor can see the lining on a monitor and look for polyps, ulcers, tumors, inflammation or bleeding. They can remove any concerning tissue right then and there and examine it under a microscope to see if it’s cancerous.

Video: How does a colonoscopy work?

Does a colonoscopy hurt? 

Most colonoscopies don’t hurt, but some people do experience burning or cramping or a feeling of bloating afterwards. During the test you may feel sleepy or relaxed, due to the sedation and pain medicines.

How long does a colonoscopy take?

About 30 to 45 minutes. If it is normal, you may only need this procedure done once every 10 years. 

Do I have to be put to sleep? 

Colonoscopies don’t require general anesthetic. For most patients, colonoscopies only require light sedation. It doesn’t put you to sleep but instead allows you to relax or even nod off which helps the procedure go smoothly.

What are the signs of colorectal cancer?

Most early-stage colorectal cancers often present no symptoms at all. If you notice blood in your stool, experience fairly sudden weight loss, fatigue or gradual changes in your bowel movements, you should contact your provider as soon as possible.

I have a family history of colon cancer. Am I at increased risk?

Most people who get colon cancer do not have genes that put them at risk. However, rarely there are mutated genes that can greatly increase your risk. Testing a family member who has colon cancer is the best way to determine risk among family members. If that’s not possible, ask your doctor for a referral to a genetic counselor who can help determine whether your family history puts you at higher risk for colon cancer.

Learn More: Colon Cancer Genetic Testing

Are certain people (age, race, ethnicity, etc.) more at risk?

Yes. The older you are, the greater the risk. Men are slightly more at risk compared to women. African Americans, people with obesity or people with ulcerative colitisCrohn’s disease or other gastrointestinal diseases are all at higher risk. 

I’m still a little nervous. Is there any other test I can take instead?

Yes, when it comes to colorectal screenings you do have options. Some can even be done at home, like a stool test that looks for blood or other signs of potential problems. But a colonoscopy performed at a medical facility remains the gold standard for early detection.

How can I keep my colon healthy?

There are several things you can do. If you smoke, quit. This will also reduce your risk of heart attack, stroke and other types of cancers. A diet high in vegetables and low in red meat will also improve your colon health. Exercise, staying active and managing a healthy weight are also great ways to improve your colon health and have huge benefits to your overall health. Last but not least, get a colonoscopy if you’re 45 or older or as recommended by your provider. And be honest with your provider about any changes in your bowel movements.

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