Frequently Asked Questions About Colon Cancer

What is a colon?

A colon, also called the large intestine or large bowel, is part of the body’s digestive system. The colon is a muscular tube about five feet long and three inches wide. During digestion, food moves from the stomach to the small intestine and then to the colon. The colon absorbs water and nutrients from the body’s waste, creates stool and then pushes that stool into the rectum.

What is colon cancer?

Cancer is a disease in which the body’s cells grow out of control. Colon cancer, also called colorectal cancer, is most common in people ages 50 or older. It often begins as a pre-cancerous polyp or growth on the inner lining of the colon. Colon cancer is often preventable and treatable when detected early, often during a colonoscopy screening.

What are the risk factors for colon cancer?

A risk factor is something that increases your chances of getting a disease. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will definitely get a disease, only that you and your doctor should watch more carefully for warning signs. Some risk factors can be avoided through lifestyle changes and some cannot. Some of the risk factors for colon cancer include:

  • Age 50 or older
  • African American
  • Type-II diabetes
  • Personal or family history of colon cancer or polyps
  • Personal history of inflammatory bowel disease
  • Some inherited genetic syndromes
  • Diet high in fat and/or low in fiber or calcium
  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Heavy drinking
  • Physical inactivity

What are the symptoms of colon cancer?

Early stages of colon cancer may not have symptoms. However, some of the symptoms that may occur during later stages include:

  • Constipation, diarrhea and other stool changes that lasts longer than four weeks
  • Bloody stool
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Vomiting
  • Persistent abdominal pain, cramps, gas or bloating
  • Feeling of bowel not completely emptying
  • Feeling persistently tired or weak

What are polyps?

A polyp is a clump of cells that forms on the lining of the colon. Most polyps are not harmful, but some may develop into colon cancer. Colonoscopies can help detect pre-cancerous polyps

What are the rates of colon cancer?

Approximately 4.4 percent of men and women will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer at some point in their lives according to 2011-2013 data from the National Institutes of Health. The risk is slightly lower for women than for men.

How is colon cancer diagnosed?

Doctors use many tools and techniques to diagnose colon cancer including:

  • Pressing on the abdomen or feeling inside the rectum for abnormalities
  • Testing blood and stool
  • Performing colonoscopies
  • Performing CAT scans, PET scans, MRIs, endoscopies and ultrasounds

Why are colonoscopies important?

Colon cancer is often preventable and treatable. Colonoscopies can help doctors find and remove polyps in the colon – sometimes before they become cancerous. Regular colonoscopies are recommended for people ages 50 and older and those who are at high risk.

How is a colonoscopy performed?

A colonoscopy is a procedure in which a doctor inserts a thin tube equipped with a camera into the anus and then guides it inside the colon. During this procedure, the doctor will see images from inside the body on a monitor. A doctor will pump air into the colon to view the lining of the colon more clearly. Also, the doctor may use tiny tools inserted through the tube to remove tissue samples or polyps.

How do you prepare for a colonoscopy?

Typically, you can only drink clear liquids and must stop eating solid foods for one or two days before the procedure. The doctor will also prescribe a laxative to help flush out the colon.

What should you expect on the day of a colonoscopy?

Before the colonoscopy, you will likely be given a sedative. During the colonoscopy, you will wear a hospital gown and lie on your side with your knees pulled up to your chest. Your doctor will insert a thin tube equipped with a camera into your anus.

The doctor will pump air into the colon so that he or she can see the lining of your colon more clearly. You may feel some cramping. The doctor will look at video of the inside of your colon on a monitor.

Using very small tools inserted through the tube, your doctor may take tissue samples or remove polyps. This is not painful. Your colonoscopy will probably be completed in less than an hour.

After the procedure, you may need one or two hours to rest before going home. Because of the sedative, you will feel tired for a few hours after the procedure. So, plan to have a friend or family member pick you up from the hospital.

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