Memorial Health - March 16, 2022

Even though colorectal cancer is the second most common cancer killer in the U.S., people still have misconceptions that cause them to not seek the preventive care and treatment they may need.

Myth 1: I am not having any symptoms … so I don’t need to be screened

A common belief is that screening is only necessary for those who are experiencing signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer – like bleeding from the rectum, persistent changes in bowel movements, stomach pain or unexpected weight loss. But that’s not true, according to Elizabeth McKeown, MD, colorectal surgeon.

“Colorectal cancer is a silent disease, for the most part,” McKeown said. “It may take years to progress to the point where you experience symptoms. By the time a patient begins noticing symptoms, the disease if often more advanced and more difficult to treat.”

Guidelines recommend that all adults age 45 to 75 be screened. Those who have certain risk factors like a family history of colorectal cancer should consider getting screened even earlier.

Myth 2: You can’t get colorectal cancer before age 45

Because screening guidelines recommend that most people get screened starting at age 45, some people assume they can’t get this cancer at an earlier age.

“Colorectal cancer does indeed strike younger people,” McKeown said. “And while it’s still uncommon, the rate in this population is on the rise.”

Why the increase? It’s possible that changes in diet or shifts in the kinds of bacteria living in your guts are having an effect.

Myth 3: A colonoscopy is painful

The most common colorectal cancer screening test in the U.S. is colonoscopy, where a doctor inserts a long, flexible fiber-optic instrument into the rectum and intestines to look for growths and remove any that are found.

It sounds like it would be painful. But it’s not.

“During the procedure, patients are sedated,” said McKeown. “They are conscious and can respond to directions, but don’t feel any pain. It tends to be a smooth process.”

If anything, most patients say the prep before the procedure is the most uncomfortable part. The prep can be uncomfortable because of the large amount of liquid you must drink in a short period of time.

Myth 4: Colonoscopy is the only option for screening

Colonoscopy is not the only way to screen for colorectal cancer.

There are also very simple home-based tests that look for tiny amounts of blood in the stool.

“Patients with a positive stool-based test carry an increased risk for colon cancer, so completing a follow-up colonoscopy is very important,” McKeown said. “If the test is negative, the patient is good to go until they’re due for their next test.”

Make sure you understand these and other misconceptions about colorectal cancer by talking with your doctor and determining the best time for you to start getting screened.