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What to know about colorectal cancer and colonoscopies | Touro

What to know about colorectal cancer and colonoscopies | Touro

What is colorectal cancer?

Colorectal cancer is cancer that starts in either your colon or your rectum. These make up the lower part of your digestive or gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Both types of cancer have a lot in common. So they're often called colorectal cancer.

The colon and rectum make up the large intestine. This is sometimes called the large bowel. The colon is a muscular tube about 5 feet long. It forms the last part of the digestive tract. It absorbs water from the remaining food matter. The colon and rectum are made up of many layers. Both have a wet inner lining made of millions of cells. Changes in the cells that line the inside of the colon or rectum can lead to growths called polyps. Over time, some types of polyps can become cancer.

Adenocarcinoma is the name of the cancer that starts in these polyps. They're the most common type of colorectal tumor. Removing polyps early (when they're small) may stop cancer from ever forming.

What are the symptoms of colorectal cancer?

People with colorectal cancer often don't have symptoms right away. By the time symptoms start, the cancer may have grown or spread to other organs. This is why routine colorectal cancer screening is important. (Screening can help find colorectal cancer when it's small and easier to treat.)

Symptoms can include:

  • Bright red or very dark blood in your stool

  • Constant tiredness

  • Stools that are thinner than normal

  • Ongoing gas pains, bloating, fullness, or cramps

  • Unexplained weight loss

  • Vomiting

A healthcare provider will need to find out if your symptoms are caused by cancer. Talk with your provider if you have any of the above symptoms for more than a few weeks or if they keep getting worse.

Who is at risk for colorectal cancer?

Anyone can get colorectal cancer. But there are some factors that can increase your risk, such as:

  • Age. Most people who have this cancer are over age 50. But it can occur at any age.

  • Race and ethnicity. African Americans have the highest risk for colorectal cancer in the U.S. And Jews whose families are from Eastern Europe (Ashkenazi Jews) have one of the highest colorectal cancer risks of any ethnic group in the world.

  • Gender. Men have a slightly higher risk of this cancer than women.

  • History of colorectal polyps. If you have had polyps called adenomas in the past, you may be more likely to get colorectal cancer.

  • Family history. People are at higher risk if they have a family history of colorectal cancer or polyps in a first-degree relative.

  • Diet. Colorectal cancer is linked to a diet high in red meats. This includes beef, pork, lamb, and veal. It's also linked to a diet high in processed meats, such as hot dogs and lunch meats.

Colorectal cancer screening

The American Cancer Society and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force advise colorectal cancer screening for people at average risk starting at age 45. Talk with your healthcare provider about your risks.

Fecal occult blood test (FOBT) (every 1 year). These tests check for blood in stool that you can’t see. Hidden blood may be a sign of colon polyps or cancer.

Colonoscopy (every 10 years)

This test allows your healthcare provider to find and remove polyps in your colon or rectum. It is the only screening test that lets your healthcare provider see your entire colon and rectum. This test lets your healthcare provider remove any pieces of tissue that need to be checked for cancer. If you have an abnormal result from any other colorectal cancer screening test, you will likely need a colonoscopy.

Flexible sigmoidoscopy (every 5 years)

This test is a lot like a colonoscopy. But it is done only on the sigmoid colon and rectum. The sigmoid colon is the last 2 feet or so that connects to your rectum. The healthcare provider guides a thin, flexible, lighted tube (sigmoidoscope) into your rectum and lower colon. The images are shown on a video screen. Polyps can be removed. They are sent to a lab for testing.

Talk with your healthcare provider about which screening tests might be best for you. Each test has pros and cons. But no matter which test you have, the most important thing is that you get screened. If cancer is found at an early stage during screening, it's easier to treat.

If you or someone you know needs a primary care provider, you can visit our physician directory or call 504.897.7777

Virendra Joshi

Dr. Virendra Joshi specializes in Gastroenterology at Touro. He attended Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates and completed his residency at the University of Illinois. Dr. Joshi is board-certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine.