March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month and we are teaching our communities about colorectal cancer, more commonly known as colon cancer. If you haven’t read Part I of our two-blog series, check it out. In Part I you get an introduction to what colon cancer is and why screening is important and when you should get a screening. In Part II we talk about the higher colon cancer risk to Alaska Native people, how that changes the recommended screening schedule, and what are the different screening options available.
Is colon cancer higher risk for Alaska Native people?
Yes, it is. In Part I we learned that colon cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in the U.S. But among Alaska Native people, it is second! For Alaska Native people, colon cancer occurs at almost twice the rate of the U.S. White population.
Should I begin my colon cancer screenings earlier if I am Alaska Native?
Yes, you should. We recommend starting regular colon cancer screenings at age 40, five years earlier than the general population. Remember, since early colon cancer often has no symptoms, it is important to detect these cancers early. If caught early enough, your 5-year survival rate goes up to 90 percent. For Alaska Native people, screenings can stop at age 75 unless you are high risk, then screenings should continue until age 85.
Is there anything I can do to lower my risk for colon cancer if I am Alaska Native?
Yes. Depending on your family history and personal health, you can move from high risk to general risk if you maintain a healthy weight, stay physically active, and stop using tobacco products and drinking alcoholic beverages.
What type of colon cancer screenings are available?
Since early detection of colon cancer is so critical to survival, we recommend participating in colon cancer screening tests when you are of appropriate age. A screening test is the process of looking for cancer in patients who have no symptoms. For colon cancer, tests can be broken into two groups:
- Stool-based tests
- Visual/structural exams
Stool-based tests look for signs of cancer in your stool/fecal matter. They are less physically invasive than a visual or structural exam but they need to be taken more often for accurate results, usually every year. The draw-back of stool-based tests is that if you receive an abnormal result, you will then be required to have a visual/structural exam to follow-up.
Visual/structural exams look at the inside of the colon and rectum for any abnormalities that might be cancer or polyps. A colonoscopy is the most common form of this type of test. During a colonoscopy the doctor looks at the entire length of the colon and rectum with a colonoscope, a flexible tube about the width of a finger. At the end of the scope is a light and small camera that is put through the anus and into the rectum and colon. Since patients are sedated during the procedure, there is minimal discomfort.
The preparation for the colonoscopy test might be the most difficult part about the procedure since your colon and rectum must be emptied out so your doctor can see the inner lining during the test. Patients cannot eat for many hours beforehand and must take prescribed medicine to help their intestines become empty in a short period of time. We recommend contacting your provider for more specific details about what this procedure might require. The benefits of this type of exam is that there are conducted more infrequently than stool-based tests, and the results are more accurate.
Each type of test has both pros and cons, and it is personal preference on which one is used. But remember, no matter which type of screening you choose, the most important thing is to get screened. If you haven’t already, be sure to read Part I of “Colon cancer screening can save your life.”
You can also learn more about colon cancer screenings at SEARHC by calling your primary care provider’s office.