African-American men and women have the highest risk of colorectal cancer and are being diagnosed with it at a younger age than other ethnic groups, which is why new screening guidelines urge African-Americans to start colorectal cancer screenings at age 45.
Colorectal cancer is the most preventable and treatable cancer we have, if it’s caught early. Shockingly, federal statistics show some 30 percent of adults have never been screened. And there’s evidence that African-Americans and Hispanic Americans are less likely to have screening tests, according to the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy (ASGE). Consequently, when colorectal cancer is diagnosed in these two groups, it tends to be in later stages when the cancer is more difficult to treat.
The Importance of Screening
Colorectal cancer usually starts a benign tumor, or polyp, that changes and grows over time. This is where screening comes in. doctors can identify and remove polyps while they are still precancerous, or find cancerous tumors while they are more treatable.
The reason why doctors rely on screening is that most patients don’t have any signs and symptoms in the early stages. By the time there are symptoms, the cancer is farther along.
There are several screening tests available, but the gold standard of early detection and treatment is the colonoscopy. In this type of screening, the physician uses a colonoscope – a flexible tube with a camera on the end – to visualize the colon and search for any polyps or tumors. While the idea of this can be embarrassing, imagine the ordeal of getting cancer – a cancer you might have prevented.
During the colonoscopy, the doctor will remove any polyps and check them for precancerous cells. The exam is usually done under conscious sedation, which is administered intravenously. There is minimal or no discomfort.
Symptoms Not to Ignore
No matter your age, it’s especially important to see your doctor immediately if you experience:
- Rectal bleeding
- Blood in your stool
- Stomach pain
- Weight loss without a known cause
- Change in bowel habits, including diarrhea or new onset constipation
Following Doctor Recommendations
Don’t be surprised if you’re African–American and your doctor recommends you start screening before 45. Your risk for colorectal cancer may be even higher if:
- You have a first-degree relative (parent, sibling) who has had colorectal polyps or colorectal cancer.
- You have inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.
Dr. McGee is a board-certified physician specializing in Gastroenterology at Kelsey-Seybold’s Fort Bend Medical and Diagnostic Center. Her clinical interests include Hepatology and inflammatory bowel disease.