Cancer of the colon is a common – and lethal – disease. It is the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States. Approximately 150,000 new cases of colon cancer are diagnosed each year, leading to more than 55,000 deaths.
Yet, it is preventable.
Dr. Waqar Qureshi, professor of medicine – gastroenterology at Baylor College of Medicine, answers common questions about colon cancer and preventative screening.
Q: How does colon cancer develop?
A: Most colon cancers start as small growths in the colon called polyps, which produce no symptoms. It takes more than 10 years for a benign polyp to develop into cancer. This slow rate of growth allows doctors to remove polyps before they become cancer.
Q: How is screening for colon cancer performed?
A: Screening for colon and rectum cancer means looking for cancer or polyps in individuals who have no symptoms. Screening identifies polyps and allows their removal; it also detects cancers earlier, resulting in cancer prevention as well as early diagnosis.
Q: When do I need to get screened for colon cancer?
A: Although most colon cancer develops after the age of 50, there has been an increase of colon cancer cases in younger people. For this reason, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force issued guidelines last year suggesting that screening start at the age of 45. Once polyps are detected and removed, colonoscopy is repeated every three, five or 10 years depending on the number, size, and type of polyps present.
Q: What is the best way to get screened?
A: Colonoscopy is the best screening test for colon cancer. A colonoscopy takes approximately 20 minutes. It is typically performed with intravenous sedation and is pain free and can save your life.
It’s important to realize that there are other tests for colon cancer, but colonoscopy remains the gold standard. No other tests allow for removal of precancerous polyps. Stool tests are less accurate with false negatives and false positives, and if positive, your insurance may not cover you for a “screening colonoscopy,” which you will then need – and instead may be billed for a diagnostic procedure.
In large, well-designed clinical studies, screening has been shown to reduce the occurrence of colon cancer, as well as deaths related to this disease.
March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month. Find more information on colon cancer treatment offered by the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center. To make an appointment with a Baylor Medicine gastroenterologist, call 713–798–0950 or request an appointment online.
-By Molly Chiu