At Saint Alphonsus, the digestive system — which includes the colon — is the second-leading place where we find cancerous tumors in our patients, falling right below breast cancer.
What’s more concerning is that colon cancer is highly preventable, yet only around 60 percent of Idaho residents within the age range of the highest cancer risk get screened each year.
And colon cancer continues to take the lives of loved ones and friends. Knowledge of and action on the benefits of colon-cancer screening can be our best defense in reducing cancer rates in Idaho and across the country, helping to save lives from advanced-stage colon cancer in the future.
Here are the common questions I hear in my office:
Q: When should I be tested for colon cancer, and how often?
Men and women put off colon-cancer screening because they don’t think they are within the age range, or they think they are healthy enough already. Here’s the truth: Testing for colon cancer should begin no later than age 50 years old, no matter who you are or how healthy you live. Some forms of colon cancer are based primarily upon heredity, which means that you could be at an increased risk regardless of a healthy lifestyle. Other people under the age of 50 may benefit from screenings as well — if they are experiencing certain symptoms such as lower stomach cramping or prolonged diarrhea, or even if they have a family history of colon cancers.
Q: How preventable is it, and what kind of screenings are available?
The good part is that if colon cancer is caught early and treated, the survival rate is up to 90 percent. Unfortunately, only 39 percent of colon cancers are caught in early stages, which is a direct result of the low number of people currently being screened each year. There are many different ways to be screened for colon cancer, ranging from colonoscopies to DNA tests and CT scans — and although the thought of having a colon-cancer screening may seem daunting, it could save your life or the life of a family member or friend. Most of my patients report the procedure is much easier than they expected, and they feel it was well worth the peace of mind.
Q: What are other ways to prevent colon cancer?
While some colon cancers are hereditary, others are the result of poor diet, obesity, low physical activity and lifestyle factors such as smoking. Limiting processed foods and alcohol, exercising and quitting smoking will help tremendously in preventing the growth of new cancers as well as helping to stave off other health issues such as diabetes and heart disease.
Q: What now?
If you’re over the age of 50 and haven’t had a colon cancer screening yet, please consider having one. While most patients don’t look forward to the procedure, all feel happy to have avoided the risks of an advanced-stage cancer diagnosis.
Dr. Alan Langerak is a medical oncologist with the Saint Alphonsus Cancer Care Center in Boise. To contact Dr. Langerak’s office, call 367-3131. Learn more about Saint Alphonsus at saintalphonsus.org.