Katie Couric on Staying Healthy and Fighting Cancer (3:44)
Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the U.S., with about 50,000 people dying due to colon cancer each year. This disease is so often deadly because it’s frequently discovered after it’s already reached an advanced stage.
Here’s how to recognize the signs of colon cancer, when to book your next screening appointment, plus tips to lower your risk.
Symptoms of colon cancer
Colon cancer begins in the lower part of your intestine. “Most colon cancers, especially the smaller tumors, have no symptoms at all,” says Goldin. “People will be walking around with no idea that they have multiple tumors. Often, they don’t get tested until there’s not much that can be done to treat them.”
By the time symptoms show, the disease has usually already spread outside of the colon. Yet, between 70 to 90 percent of colon cancers are diagnosed after symptoms appear because of the tendency to put off screening.
If symptoms are present, they may include:
Black or tarry stools, diarrhea
Severe constipation or being completely unable to have a bowel movement
Frequent gas pain or stomach aches
Blood in your stool: “Anybody who's experiencing rectal bleeding should make an appointment with their healthcare provider (HCP). People might think, ‘Well, I've got hemorrhoids,’ but you could have colon cancer as well,” says Goldin.
Internal bleeding can also cause you to feel weak, exhausted or dizzy. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, make an appointment with your HCP immediately.
Colon cancer screening
If you’re at an average risk for colon cancer, you should have your first colonoscopy at age 50. People who are at a higher risk should talk to their HCP starting around age 40 to determine an appropriate screening regimen for them, says Goldin. You’re at a higher risk and may need to start screening before age 50 if you:
Are African American
Have a family history of colon cancer
There are a number of tests available, but the gold standard for colon cancer screening is the colonoscopy, explains Goldin. For a colonoscopy, a gastroenterologist, a doctor specializing in the stomach and intestines, will advance a long tube with a camera through your colon to search for polyps. Polyps are little growths on the colon lining, which may eventually grow into tumors.
If you have polyps, your gastroenterologist will remove samples and send them to a lab to determine if you have cancer, called a biopsy. He or she may be able to completely remove polyps or even small tumors during the colonoscopy as well.