Health Break | Published March 21, 2005 | Written by Linda Lochbaum, MS, RN, CWOCN

Early Detection Is Key To Overcoming Colorectal Cancer

This is National Colorectal Screening and Awareness Month—a month that the healthcare community has devoted to educating people about the prevention, early diagnosis and treatment of colorectal cancer.

Are you one of the many Americans who have been screened for colorectal cancer? I hope so.

Did you know that colorectal cancer is the second leading cancer killer? The good news is that early detection and treatment can cure the disease.

Who needs to be screened?

If you are age 50 or older, you need to begin to be screened and continue at regular intervals.

If you or a close relative have had polyps or cancer, you need to begin to be screened earlier than age 50.

If you have inflammatory bowel disease, you also need to be screened earlier.

Ask your doctor when you need to start being screened for colorectal cancer.

What screening methods are used?

Fecal occult blood tests may be done at home. For this, you take a sample of your stool from three different bowel movements and place the sample on a card. The sample is then checked for hidden blood at the laboratory.

Flexible sigmoidoscopy is done by your physician, often in their office. This scope is a thin, flexible tube that is inserted into your rectum and lower large intestine.

Sometimes, both the fecal occult blood test and flexible sigmoidoscopy are done together to increase the chance of detecting something abnormal, such as a polyp.

A physician also does colonoscopy. This scope is also a thin, flexible tube; but is much longer and can view the entire large intestine. There is more preparation for this test. In addition to being able to view your entire large intestine, polyps can also be removed during the exam.

Double contrast Barium Enema is an X-ray of the large intestine. First, the barium is given as an enema; then, the air is given. The combination helps to create an outline of the intestine. Then the physician can identify abnormalities.

Why be screened?

It is estimated that more than a third of the deaths from colorectal cancer could be prevented if people over 50 years of age had regular screening. Because screening tests can pick up pre-cancerous polyps, colorectal cancer can be prevented. In fact, colorectal cancer is one of the most preventable cancers. Many times, people with polyps or colorectal cancer do not know it because they have no symptoms; thus, the screening tests can pick it up early. The survival rate for Stage 1 (earliest stage) is over 90 percent.

What to do:

First, take steps to reduce your risk for colorectal cancer by:

  • Eating a diet that includes many fruits and vegetables

  • Eating a diet high in fiber

  • Eating a diet low in fat

  • Limiting your consumption of alcohol and tobacco

  • If obese, attempt to lower your weight

  • Exercising regularly

Next, report these symptoms to your physician, as they may indicate an abnormality:

  • A change in bowel habits

  • Blood, either bright red or dark, in your stool

  • Diarrhea, constipation, or a feeling that the bowel is not emptying

  • Stools that are more narrow than usual

  • General abdominal discomfort

  • Weight loss with no known reason

  • Constantly tired

  • Vomiting

Take care of yourself, and contact your healthcare provider to arrange the colorectal cancer screening tests. For more information, contact the American Cancer Society.

Linda Lochbaum, RN, MS, CWOCN, is a Clinical Nurse Specialist at Mount Nittany Medical Center.