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Colon cancer screening can save your life - Part I

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month and here at SEARHC, we know thinking about the possibility of having cancer is a scary and uncomfortable thing. This month we are giving our communities as much information as possible about colorectal cancer, more commonly known as colon cancer, so you have the facts for the best chance of colon cancer prevention and survival.

In Part I of our two-blog series we talk about what exactly colon cancer is, why an early screening can save your life, and the recommended age range for patients to get a screening. In Part II we talk about the unique colon cancer statistics related to Alaska Native people, how you must change your screening schedule if you are an Alaska Native, and what are the different screening options available.

What is colon cancer?

Colorectal cancer is a disease that affects the large intestine which is the last segment of your digestive tract. This intestine is known as the colon. Most instances of colon cancer begin as small, benign sacks of cells called adenomatous polyps. If not removed, some of these polyps can become colon cancers.

According to the American Cancer Society, colon cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the U.S. But despite being a leading cause of cancer death, if treated early enough, colon cancer is preventable if caught in time by screening.

How will a colon cancer screening save my life?

Before screening technology was developed, the only way doctors knew patients were fighting colon cancer was because the patient might show the following symptoms:

  • Bowel irregularities, including diarrhea or constipation, lasting longer than four weeks
  • Rectal bleeding or blood in your stool
  • Chronic stomach discomfort, such as cramps, gas or pain
  • Weakness or fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss

But since technology improved, doctors learned that in the early stages the polyps are small and will cause little or no symptoms. They also learned there is a window in which the doctor can remove the polyps before they turn into cancer.

When the polyps are left untreated, they will turn cancerous and spread outside the colon or rectum, greatly dropping survival rates. But when the colon cancer is found at this early stage before it has spread, the 5-year relative survival rate is about 90 percent. This is why doctors recommend regular screening tests.

When should I start getting colon cancer screenings and when can I stop?

For non-Alaska Native people, starting regular colon cancer screenings at age 45 is recommended. Those who are in good health should continue colon cancer screenings through the age of 75. For people ages 76 through 85, the decision to be screened should be based on your life expectancy, overall health, and prior screening history. People over 85 should no longer receive colon cancer screenings.

You can read Part II of “Colon cancer screening can save your life” and learn more about how Alaska Native people are more at risk for colorectal cancer and what you should do if you are Alaska Native. Part II also talks about the different types of colorectal cancer screening tests you can take.

Learn more about which colon cancer screening is right for you by calling your primary care provider.

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The SEARHC Crisis Help Line, 1.877.294.0074, is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to residents of Southeast Alaska.