With increased awareness of the importance of screening, fewer people are developing colon cancer, so the death rate for colon cancer has dropped significantly in the last 15 years.

Colorectal cancer is cancer that occurs in the colon or rectum. Sometimes it is called colon cancer, for short. Sometimes abnormal growth, called polyps, form in the colon or rectum. Over time, some of these polyps may turn into cancer.

Several tests can hint if there is cancer in the colon, but the most effective screening tool is a colonoscopy, which allows your doctor to look at your rectum, the inner lining of your colon and the lower part of your small intestine with a colonoscope, a thin, flexible tube with a small video camera attached. If necessary, tissue samples will be collected (biopsy) and polyps will be removed during the procedure.

Usually, 30 to 40% of patients undergoing a colonoscopy have polyps that need to be removed. The procedure takes about 20 minutes and you are completely asleep the entire time.

For most of us, the preparation for the screening is the most dreaded part of the exam. Before your doctor can perform the exam, you will need to clean out your colon so the intestines are completely clear. That means getting ALL of the “poop” out. Colon prep, a solution you drink that will cause you to empty your intestinal track, during that period, your bathroom and toilet are your closest companion. The cleaning out process usually takes a day, and the day before the test you can’t eat any solid foods, only clear broth. You should plan on staying at home during your prep time.

This simple screening can catch non-cancerous polyps that would likely become cancerous if left alone. For 80% of patients, removing polyps prevents cancer from ever developing. That’s good news for most of us, who dread this kind of exam.

Both men and women can get colon cancer. It is the second-most common cancer affecting women (after breast cancer) and third-most common cancer affecting men (after lung and prostate). But screening finds the polyps before they become cancerous. That early diagnosis and polyp removal equates to a complete cure for most people.

How often you have a colonoscopy depends on what was found during your first exam. If no polyps or only non-cancerous ones were found, you won’t need another one for 10 years — unless you experience symptoms or your family history warrants more frequent exams.

Ideally, everyone will have a baseline screening at age 50. The frequency of any future screenings depends on how many polyps are detected during your exam and your family medical history. If you have no polyps or a hyperplastic polyp (no potential to turn into cancer) you would return in 10 years. If you have a tubular or tubulovillous adenoma, depending on size and the number, you would typically return in three or five years.

However, 50 is not the magic number for everyone. Researchers have identified several risk factors that are believed to make some individuals more prone to developing colon cancer, and therefore may warrant testing at a younger age.

These risk factors include:

•Having a first-degree relative (a parent, sibling or child) who was diagnosed with colorectal cancer or polyps – Individuals with a family history colorectal cancer or polyps may have an elevated risk of developing the condition themselves, particularly if a close relative was diagnosed at a young age. As a general rule of thumb, these individuals should begin screening 10 years before the age of the youngest case in his or her immediate family. For example, if an individual’s parent was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 45, that individual should have his or her first colonoscopy by age 35.

•Being of African-American descent – Due to a disproportionately higher incidence of colon cancer among the African-American population, some physicians recommend a baseline colonoscopy at age 45 or earlier for African-Americans.

Even if you missed getting your baseline colonoscopy and you’re way pass 50, jump on in there. One of the reasons colon cancer is among the deadliest is because there are few symptoms and by the time you begin to experience symptoms, the cancer is usually in an advanced stage.

Symptoms of colon cancer may include:

•Blood in or on your stool (bowel movement).

•Stomach pain, aches, or cramps that don’t go away.

•Losing weight and you don’t know why

The overall most effective way to reduce your risk of colorectal cancer is by having regular colorectal cancer screening tests beginning at age 50.

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