About 90 percent of colon cancers occur in people over 50. Risk increases with age, and if you or a close relative have a history of colon cancer or polyps. Risk also increases if you eat a diet high in fat and red meat, use tobacco, don’t exercise regularly, are overweight, or drink alcohol.
Don’t wait for symptoms because most colon cancer patients don’t have them. Some people notice changes in bowel habits, frequency, size, or have rectal bleeding, stomach pain, unexplained weight loss or iron-deficient anemia. Even if colon cancer has already developed, the chances of surviving it are good if it’s found early.
Colonoscopies are the best way to find and remove polyps. A tiny camera lets the doctor look at the entire colon and remove polyps immediately. Most colonoscopies are not painful and you will receive mild sedation. Past age 50, you should have one every two years if you are at high risk.
The following three tests are less expensive, less invasive and do not require preparation on your part. However, they are not as accurate in detecting cancer. If a problem is found, you will also have to have a colonoscopy.
High-sensitivity fecal occult blood test (FOBT) looks for signs of blood in a stool sample that you collect at home, using a kit your doctor provides. It needs to be done every year. Flexible sigmoidoscopy uses a tiny camera to examine only the lower colon and rectum. A barium enema, o contrast enema, looks for blockages in the colon. You drink a solution that reveals blockages or growths during an X-ray.
The colon must be cleaned of stool in order to have a good quality colonoscopy. Improvements have been made in colonoscopy preparation. Suppositories, enemas or harsh laxatives are no longer used. You are responsible for completing the entire prep the day before your colonoscopy. That usually means drinking the medication your doctor prescribes and staying near a bathroom.
The cost of non-prescription, over-the-counter prep medications is less than $10. Private-insurance does not cover prep medications.
To reduce your colon cancer risk, eat a high-fiber diet with lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains; quit smoking, maintain a healthy weight, and get regular exercise.