Colorectal Cancer Facts vs Fiction
by Dr. Nicole Zavagnin, Regional Primary Care Lead
Colorectal cancer, also called bowel or colon cancer, is the second most common cancer found in men and women in Ontario.
Colorectal cancer screening helps to find colon cancers or precancerous polyps at an earlier stage when they are more easily treated. In fact, colorectal cancer has a 90% chance of being cured when caught early, which is why regular screening could save your life.
Nearly half of all adults in our region who should be screened for colorectal cancer are not up-to-date with their screening. Why? Some believe myths about colorectal cancer and the screening tests that are currently used. Know the facts.
Myth: I don’t need to get checked for colorectal cancer because I have no family history of the disease.
Fact: Almost 70% of people diagnosed with colorectal cancer have no family history of the disease. People without a family history are said to be at ‘average risk’, meaning they should get checked every two years with the FOBT.
People with a family history of colorectal cancer in a parent, brother, sister or child, are at increased risk. These people should get checked with a colonoscopy (instead of an FOBT) beginning at age 50, or 10 years earlier than the age at which their relative was diagnosed, whichever comes first.
Some people, such as those who have had polyps removed from their colon, as well as people with inflammatory bowel disease (i.e., Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis), may be at increased risk for developing colon cancer and may also need to be checked regularly with colonoscopy instead of an FOBT.
Myth: Getting checked for colon cancer is uncomfortable and invasive.
Fact: The FOBT is a safe and painless cancer screening test that checks a person’s stool (poop) for tiny drops of blood (not visible with the naked eye), which could be caused by colorectal cancer. The test can be done alone, in the comfort and privacy of your home, and only takes a few minutes a day on three different days to do.
Take-home FOBT kits are available from health care providers. People without a family doctor or nurse practitioner can get a kit through Telehealth Ontario at 1-866-828-9213, community pharmacies or the Screen for Life Coach at 1-800-461-7031.
Myth: I don’t have any symptoms of colorectal cancer so I don’t need to get checked.
Fact: Colorectal cancer can grow slowly in the body for many years before causing any symptoms. Screening aims to find it early, when there are no uncomfortable symptoms, and when treatment has the best chance of curing the disease. When colon cancer is caught early, 90% of people can be cured.
The risk of colorectal cancer increases after the age of 50, which is why it is particularly important for men and women between 50 and 74 years of age to make sure that they are up-to-date with their screening and complete it regularly.
Myth: Colorectal cancer cannot be prevented.
Fact: There are some habits or personal characteristics, called ‘risk factors’, which can increase the chance of getting colorectal cancer. Some risk factors cannot be changed, such as age and family history. However, there are some risk factors that can be changed. To lower your risk of getting colorectal cancer:
- Limit alcohol. Men should have no more than two drinks a day and women should have no more than one drink a day.
- Limit red meat and try not to eat processed meat (e.g., bologna, salami).
- Have a healthy body weight.
- Be physically active as part of everyday life.
- Eat a diet high in fibre (including vegetables and fruit).
- Quit smoking and stop using tobacco products.
For more information on how you can determine your risk of developing colon cancer, and five other types of cancer, I recommend completing an online risk assessment called ‘My CancerIQ’. Visit www.mycanceriq.ca
Dr. Zavagnin is the Regional Primary Care Lead for Cancer Care Ontario with Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre. March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month. Cancer screening sees what you can’t.