Cancer of the colon or rectum is a leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. Termed colorectal cancer, it usually can be cured by surgery if found early enough. However, the early stages of the disease usually are not noticed by those who get it, and all should be aware of the screening tests that are available for detection.
Most cancers of the colon or rectum begin as a polyp, which is a small, harmless growth in the wall of the colon. The polyp can grow and keep your intestine from working properly. The warning signs of colorectal cancer include bleeding from your rectum; blood in your stool or in the toilet after you have a bowel movement; a change in the shape of your stool; cramping pain in your lower stomach; and a feeling of discomfort or an urge to have a bowel movement when there is no need to have one.
There are a variety of screening tests available for early detection of colorectal disease. Your physician can match specific screening methods with your situation to determine which is best. In the digital rectal exam, your doctor uses a gloved finger to find any growths that may be in your rectum. This exam finds less than 10 percent of colorectal cancers, and should be used with another screening method.
In the fecal occult blood test, your stiil is checked to see if it contains blood that may be hidden. If blood is found, another test is done to search for a polyp or other source of bleeding. A flexible sigmoidoscopy involves your doctor examining the lower part of your colon after he puts a then, flexible tube with a light on the end into your rectum. This test, though uncomfortable, allows the detection of very small polyps.
For a person with no symptoms and no family history of colorectal cancer, the American Cancer Society recommends that anyone 40 years of age or older have a digital rectal examination every year. Similarly, those 50 years, of age and older should have a digital rectal examination annually plus one of the following: fecal occult blood test annually and sigmoidoscopy every 5 years; colonoscopy every 10 years; or a double-contrast barium enema every 5 years.