VA Palo Alto Health Care System
Saving Lives with Colorectal Cancer Screening
Colorectal cancer is a disease in which cells in the colon or rectum grow out of control and can spread to other body parts. It can affect both men and women with approximately 140,000 Americans diagnosed each year. It is also the 2nd leading cause of cancer death in the United States with 50,000 deaths annually.
Risk factors that can increase your risk include personal and family history of colorectal polyps or cancer, history of inflammatory bowel disease, and other genetic or familial cancer syndromes. While colon polyps and cancers can often be symptom-free, some alarm symptoms to watch out for or talk to your doctor about include blood in your stool, persistent or worsening abdominal pain, and unintentional weight loss. Other things you can do to improve your overall health and risk are lifestyle changes, such as being physically active, maintaining a healthy weight, quitting smoking, and decreasing alcohol intake to safe levels.
Unlike many other cancers, we know that most colorectal cancers develop over years from pre-cancerous polyps. Therefore, this disease is highly preventable, and screening tests are available that allow doctors to find these polyps so that they can be removed before they turn into cancer, as well as identifying cancers earlier so that chances of cure are better. Because 90% of colorectal cancers occur in people aged 50 and older, the United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends that all men and women begin screening starting at age 50 and up to 75, as it is estimated that this could prevent at least 60% of colorectal cancer-related deaths.
Here at the VA Palo Alto, we offer several screening options including colonoscopy and stool tests. Colonoscopies allow for direct visualization of the inside of the colon, as well as removal of pre-cancerous polyps if present. They are performed every weekday at our Palo Alto and Livermore campuses, with approximately 3,500 colonoscopies performed in 2016. If your colonoscopy is normal then a repeat screening test is not required for 10 years, while the presence of polyps may result in recommendations for earlier repeat procedure.
Alternatively, you can also choose to undergo a yearly fecal immunochemical test (FIT) that checks for the presence of microscopic blood in the stool, which can be a sign of polyps or cancer. Your stool sample can be collected at home with a kit and mailed into the laboratory for processing. If your FIT result is positive, your provider will likely recommend you undergo further evaluation, such as a follow-up colonoscopy.
Recent local numbers show that approximately 80% of eligible Veterans have undergone some sort of colorectal cancer screening, but we can still do better! March is National Colon Cancer Awareness Month, so now is a great time for you to talk to your doctor about your colorectal cancer risk, as well as options for screening. Schedule your appointment today!
For more information, read this brochure from the CDC and the National Colorectal Cancer Action Campaign.