Health Matters

Colon Cancer: Early Detection is the Best Protection

Cancer of the colon and rectum (colorectal cancer) is one of the leading causes of cancer death among men and women in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. The organization estimates that more than 100,000 new cases of colon cancer and more than 44,000 new cases of rectal cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2019.

Colorectal cancer usually starts as a polyp, or small growth, in the lining of the colon or rectum. Although not all polyps are cancerous, over time some of them can develop into cancer. The key to successful treatment is to catch the colon or rectal cancer in its earliest stages—or, better still, to screen for and remove any polyps.


In its earliest stages, colorectal cancer usually produces no symptoms. At more advanced stages, colorectal cancer can cause abdominal discomfort and cramps; blood in the stool; and changes in bowel habits, such as frequent constipation or diarrhea that may last several days.

Risk Factors

Risk factors for colorectal cancer include the following:

• Age

• Diet high in red meat and fat

• Family history of colorectal cancer

• Lack of physical activity/sedentary lifestyle

• Obesity

• Smoking


A number of colorectal cancer screening tests are available. Your healthcare provider can help you decide which method is best for you.

Colonoscopy is an outpatient screening procedure that allows the physician to examine the lining of the large intestine and rectum directly. Using a thin, flexible tube with a small camera and light on the end, the doctor looks for changes and growths like polyps. If any suspicious growth is found, the physician usually can remove it during the colonoscopy procedure, and the growth is then examined for the presence of cancer.

The patient is placed in a lightly sedated state during the colonoscopy, which lasts about 30-60 minutes. Most patients are asked to take it easy for the remainder of the day on which the colonoscopy is performed, and are able to return to normal activities the day after their procedure.

The American Cancer Society generally recommends that people should have their first colonoscopy at age 45 and then repeat it about every 10 years. For African Americans, the recommended starting age is 40. If you have a personal history of cancer or a family history of colorectal cancer, your doctor may recommend you have a colonoscopy more frequently than every 10 years.

If you are 45 or older (40 for African Americans), or if you are younger but have risk factors for colorectal cancer, ask your doctor about colonoscopy and the other screening tests.

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