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Published on March 11, 2014

MU Health Care Physicians Encourage Screenings to Prevent, Treat Colorectal Cancer Early

COLUMBIA, Mo. - Even though colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death in the United States, approximately one-third of people most at risk never get preventive screenings. More than 140,000 Americans are diagnosed with the disease each year, and more than 50,000 die annually from the disease.

"Colon cancer is unique because it is the only form of cancer we can prevent from occurring with regular screening," said Matthew Bechtold, M.D., a gastroenterologist at MU Health Care. "If every American who met the recommended criteria for colonoscopies received one, we could almost eliminate colon cancer."

The American College of Gastroenterology recommends that people age 50 or older receive a colonoscopy once every 10 years. Those people at higher risk also should be screened earlier or more often. The college recommends African Americans begin screening at age 45, and people with close family members who have been diagnosed with colon cancer be screened every five years beginning at age 40 or 10 years before the age when their youngest relatives were diagnosed.

"People have several options for regular colorectal cancer screenings," Bechtold said. "There are tests that look for blood in a patient's stool. There is a CT 'colonoscopy' scan, which produces an image similar to an X-ray of the patient's colon. But most experts consider traditional colonoscopy to be the best screening tool.

"During colonoscopy, a physician uses a camera inside a patient's colon to look for signs of cancer or precancerous polyps," he said. "Because colon cancer typically grows slowly during about 10 years, colonoscopy usually allows us to identify polyps before they ever become cancerous. And we can remove any polyps during that same colonoscopy, stopping cancer in its infancy."

In the early 2000s, rates of Americans receiving recommended colon cancer screenings of all kinds increased substantially - from approximately 45 percent in 2002 to approximately 63 percent in 2003, Bechtold said.

"During the past decade, those increases have leveled off at about 65 percent in 2013," he said. "We aren't sure why we haven't seen more progress, but recent research into the effectiveness of colonoscopy and other screening techniques has shown that we could save many lives by increasing the number of people we screen."

Most colon cancers are believed to have a strong genetic component, which is why it's important to know your family history of colon cancer and talk with your doctor about early screenings if you are at high risk, Bechtold said. Additionally, African Americans have a higher risk for colon cancer, as well as women with a history of gynecologic cancers. Other factors that can increase your risk are smoking or obesity.

Colon cancer often displays no symptoms until the disease has progressed to an advanced stage that is difficult to treat, which is another reason to emphasize regular screenings, said Zihao Wu, M.D., a surgical oncologist specializing in colorectal surgery at Ellis Fischel Cancer Center. However, some symptoms include:

  • Blood in your stool
  • Night sweats and unexplained weight loss, which are common with many cancers
  • Changes in your bowel movement frequency or size and shape of stools

For more information or to schedule a colonoscopy, please contact the Missouri Digestive Health Center at (573) 882-1434.