YOU and Your Doctor Are Your Medical Team – June 2023

Colon Cancer

The topic this month is colon cancer. This subject is not spoken about as much as other types of cancers, but colon cancer is the third most common cancer in men, after prostate and lung cancer and second most common cancer in women, after breast cancer. I am not sure why a conversation about changes in a person’s bowel movements seems to be such an avoided / “taboo” topic of discussion even among family members, while other cancers are freely spoken about. I understand about not talking about your personal finances or your sex life, but an unusual unexplained change in your bowels is a potentially deadly situation. 

According to Canadian Cancer Statistics, approximately one in fourteen men and one in every eighteen women will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer in their lifetimes. The American Cancer Society approximates 106,180 Americans will receive a new diagnosis of the disease in 2022.  In a study conducted over the course of 20 years and published by the National Library of Medicine (NLM), “96 of 1,046 cases of colorectal cancer were asymptomatic and [was only] detected by screening.”

Colorectal cancer is a disease that affects your large intestine (colon) or your rectum (the end of the colon). Colon and rectal cancers are grouped together as colorectal cancer because the two organs are made of the same tissues without a distinct border between them. Colon cancer starts as a tiny growth in the inner wall of the colon that is called polyps. Polyps are usually benign (noncancerous), but, when a cancerous polyp does form, cancer cells can move into the lining of the colon or rectum and spread. Cancer cells can also enter the bloodstream and lymph system. According to the American Cancer Society, a polyp can take as long as 10  years to develop into cancer. Therefore, symptoms often only start appearing once a tumor grows and then affects the surrounding organs and tissues. Colorectal cancer may not present any significant signs or symptoms in its early stages, making it important to have regular screening to help prevent colon cancer by identifying and removing polyps before they turn into cancer.

The most common symptoms of colorectal cancer are: unexplained changes in bowel habits –change in the consistency of stool  [ how it looks ],  blood / black [ tar-like] stools, new / unexplained  / persistent abdominal pain, unexplained / unintentional weight loss, a feeling that your bowel doesn’t completely empty,  rectal bleeding / pain, and either ongoing constipation or diarrhea. Other colorectal cancer symptoms may include: excessive fatigue, shortness of breath or chest pain from iron-deficiency anemia.

A colonoscopy is a procedure in which a long, flexible tube is inserted into the anus and extended up into the colon, while you are sedated. The tip of the tube contains a tiny camera showing images that the doctor can see on a computer screen. If any polyps that are discovered can then be biopsied / removed at that time. The polyps are sent to a lab to determine if any cancer cells are present. This exam is not the most “glamorous”, but it could save your life!

Listen to and pay attention to your body, many times it is trying to give you ‘warnings’ – do not ignore them.  Change is not always a good thing. See your doctor and discuss the changes you have noticed, and/or schedule a screening test as a precaution. Identifying  colon cancer when it’s still treatable is up to you. Early detection is the key to survival.

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Jackie Kellum

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