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May 29, 2019

What Older Adults Should Know About Colon Cancer Screenings

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), regular screenings beginning at age 50 are key to preventing colorectal cancer. These screenings are typically recommended until the age of 75, at a minimum. If you are between 76 and 85, the CDC suggests you discuss whether regular screenings are still needed with your doctor.

Risk factors for colon cancer include a family history of inherited colorectal cancer syndromes, or of colorectal polyps or cancer. If you’ve already experienced long-term inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, or if you’ve already had colon polyps, then you’re considered to be at a higher risk to develop colon cancer, making the need for regular screenings even more important.

When you think about colon cancer screenings, you may automatically think of a colonoscopy — which is one form of screening. The goal of these screenings, according to MedlinePlus.gov, is to detect issues, such as polyps and early cancers, in the large intestine before cancer develops or spreads.

Forms of Screening

The simplest screen is a stool test where your stool is checked for blood. This is considered a colon cancer screening because polyps and small cancers can cause bleeding in amounts that are too small to be seen by the naked eye. The most common test of this type is the fecal occult blood test. Sometimes, doctors might perform a sigmoidoscopy in conjunction with the stool test. During the sigmoidoscopy, the lower part of your colon is examined with a small flexible scope after a bowel cleanse.

During a comprehensive colonoscopy, your entire colon can be analyzed. To prepare for this test, you will need to cleanse your bowels (often considered the least pleasant part of the procedure) and then you’re given medicine to help you relax before the exam performed.

There are virtual colonoscopies, which scan the large intestine, and a capsule endoscopy, where you actually swallow a pill-sized camera that takes a video of the inside of the intestine; the latter method is still under review.

Cancer.org provides in-depth information about each of these types of colon cancer screens, including the pros and cons of each.

Treatment of Colorectal Cancer

If you are diagnosed with colorectal cancer, then treatment will likely vary, based upon the stage of the disease when diagnosed. In general, if the cancer has not spread to another bodily site, surgery may be the first treatment, possibly followed by chemotherapy.

If the cancer is discovered at Stage 0, this means it has not grown beyond the colon’s inner lining, making surgical removal perhaps the only treatment needed. By the time the disease spreads to Stage 1, the cancer has grown more deeply into the colon wall but hasn’t spread beyond that. In Stage 2, the cancer has typically grown through the wall, perhaps into surrounding tissue but not the lymph nodes. At Stage 3, nearby lymph nodes have become involved, and by Stage 4, the disease has spread to other organs and/or tissues.

Because each situation is unique, it’s important to work closely with your medical team as they develop a customized plan. Ask questions so you can fully understand how you can collaborate with your team.

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