Early screenings are key to fighting disease
The threat of cancer remains to be a significant concern in the health of both women and men. As one of the leading causes of cancer, colon cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in women.
“Colon cancer is a disease of both men and women,” Dr. Christopher Snead, who specializes in hematology and oncology at CHRISTUS Health Shreveport-Bossier, said. “Unlike prostate cancer, which affects men, and breast cancer, which mostly affects women, colorectal cancer is a leading cause of cancer in men and women. In the United States, approximately 150,000 cases of colon cancer are diagnosed each year. Colon cancer contributes to 50,000 deaths in the United States annually.”
The ways in which the cancer affects someone’s life are wide-ranging and can have some different symptomology for women versus men – though both sexes are at risk for complications.
“Some complications from colon cancer can be blockage of the intestinal tract due to a tumor in the colon, anemia, specifically iron deficiency anemia and weight loss,” he said.
“Women of childbearing age who are still having menstrual cycles may be more likely to have iron deficiency anemia attributed to menstrual blood loss than bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract. It is important to determine if any patient with iron deficiency anemia, whether male or female, has gastrointestinal bleeding. This can often be picked up with stool cards, which can be performed in the doctor’s office or taken home with the patient and returned. Blood in the stool usually will need to be investigated with endoscopy of the upper and/or lower intestines.”
It’s important to be aware of any changes in the body or signs that might be indicative of colon cancer. Some of those signs and symptoms include a change in bowel habits, such as diarrhea, constipation or narrowing of the stool, that lasts for more than a few days, a feeling that you need to have a bowel movement that is not relieved by doing so, rectal bleeding, blood in the stool, which may make it look dark, cramping or abdominal pain, weakness and fatigue and unintended weight loss.
“Colorectal cancers can often bleed into the digestive tract,” Snead said. “While sometimes the blood can be seen in the stool or make it look darker, often the stool looks normal. But over time, the blood loss can build up and can lead to low red blood cell counts (anemia). Sometimes the first sign of colorectal cancer is a blood test showing a low red blood cell count.”
Snead said most of these problems are more often caused by conditions other than colorectal cancer, such as infection, hemorrhoids or irritable bowel syndrome, and if you have any of these problems, it’s important to see your doctor right away so the cause can be found and treated, if needed.
“Women should be aware that lifetime risk of developing colon cancer is one out of 20 people,” he said. “Screening for colon cancer should usually begin around 50 years of age, but may need to start earlier if you have a family history of colon cancer or polyps, previous history of polyps, inflammatory bowel disease or history of abdominal radiation.”
There are a number of ways and techniques in which a patient is screened for colon cancer. Some are more invasive than others but provide more accurate information.
“Colonoscopy is direct visualization of the entire colon with a fiberoptic camera,” said Snead. “It is more invasive, time consuming and expensive, but gives visualization of the entire colon. Flexible sigmoidoscopy is a little cheaper, easier and quicker, but only visualizes the distal colon with a camera. It may miss some cancers in the right side, or proximal colon. Fecal occult blood tests detect blood in the stool, and if blood is detected, may be followed up with endoscopy. Fecal occult blood tests are quick, inexpensive, sensitive, but not specific for colon cancer.”
Treatment for a colon cancer diagnosis also varies, but centers around early detection and screening.
“Early detection of colon cancer is most important,” Snead said. “Screening allows detection of cancer, usually at an earlier stage. It is important to realize that screening tests such as fecal occult blood testing, flexible sigmoidoscopy and colonoscopy will detect many, but not all colon cancers. Colon cancer confined to the colon or regional lymph nodes will be treated with surgery first. Some patients with Stage II colon cancer and most patients with Stage III colon cancer will benefit from chemotherapy.”
Learn More: The importance of early detection can mean a difference of both treatment and outcome, as Dr. Christopher Snead said. For questions about the screening process and what it means for you, be sure to talk with your health-care provider.