Avinash Bhakta: Schedule your colorectal cancer screening; it’s 2nd leading cause of KY cancer deaths
Colorectal cancer was the second leading cause of cancer deaths in Kentucky in 2021.
Colorectal cancers are increasingly common and often deadly. However, colon and rectal cancers are among the few cancers that are preventable.
Colon cancer and rectal cancer, often referred to collectively as colorectal cancer, are cancers that affect your large intestine.
In its early stages, this disease often does not cause symptoms, which is why it is important to keep up with your screenings as soon as you are eligible.
Recent national recommendations now advise both men and women begin colorectal cancer screenings at age 45. However, colorectal cancer can develop in younger people, and this is often hereditary.
In Kentucky, a genetic disease called Lynch syndrome is very common, and it greatly increases your risk of developing colorectal cancer. If you have a family history of colorectal cancer or polyps, you may need to be screened earlier – check with your health care provider.
Here are the current available options for screening. Speak with your doctor and insurance company to determine which test works best for you:
• Colonoscopy: Colonoscopies are extremely effective at detecting colorectal cancer and precancerous lesions. During this test, doctors will examine the rectum and entire colon using a colonoscope, and they can actually remove any abnormal growths as they find them. This screening requires a complete cleansing (“prep”) of the colon using an oral laxative. Most patients will be under sedation throughout the procedure and will not remember anything from the procedure itself.
• CT colonography: Also known as a virtual colonoscopy, this is a CT scan of the entire colon and rectum. It requires bowel prep, but patients do not need sedation. It is less invasive than a colonoscopy, but is diagnostic only – if polyps are found, patients will need a traditional colonoscopy to remove them.
• Sigmoidoscopy: This is very similar to a colonoscopy, but only looks at part of the colon. Most patients do not need sedation, and bowel prep is less extensive than a colonoscopy (two enemas only). If there is an abnormal finding, a full colonoscopy is required.
• Fecal occult blood tests (known as gFOBT or FIT tests): This at-home test looks for blood in the stool, which can be a sign of polyps or colorectal cancer. Patients collect their own stool samples using a kit and return the sample to their doctor. Depending on which type of test you are given, there may be dietary restrictions prior to testing.
• Stool DNA test (Cologuard): This at-home test checks for blood in the stool and for nine DNA biomarkers in genes that are found in colorectal cancers. Patients collect their own samples using a kit and mail it to a laboratory for testing. This test is more accurate than a gFOBT or FIT test but is also more likely to result in a false positive. All at-home tests need to be repeated on a yearly basis, and any positive findings will require a follow-up colonoscopy.
Getting regular screenings is important. Don’t skip your regular check-ups, and if you notice any changes in your bowel habits that last longer than a few days, don’t be afraid to call your health care provider to get it checked out.
Avinash Bhakta, M.D., is a colorectal surgeon at the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center.