What is colon cancer?
March is National Colon Cancer Awareness Month, making it a good opportunity to understand what colon cancer is.
The colon is the first 6 feet of the large intestine, and the rectum and anal canal are the last 6 inches. Sometimes, malignant tumors – cancer – occur in these areas of the body. They often have many features in common, and are sometimes referred to together as “colorectal” cancer. Colorectal cancers can spread to the rest of the body.
According to the Massey Cancer Center at VCU, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in both men and women. Approximately one in 23 people is at risk for developing this cancer, and 90 percent of the new cases occur in people 50 or older. And cases of colorectal cancer are increasing among those under the age of 50.
However, the number of new cases and deaths due to colorectal cancer have decreased because of increased screening and polyp removal.
Are you at risk?
People in the following categories are at greater risk for colon cancer:
- People with a personal and/or family history of polyps or cancer
- People over the age of 50
- Certain ethnic groups, including African Americans, Native Americans and Latinos
- Those with ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease
- People with certain genetic conditions
- Change in bowel habits
- Rectal bleeding or blood in stool
- Persistent abdominal discomfort
- Nausea or vomiting
- Unexplained weight loss
- Chronic fatigue
Keep in mind that more than half of those diagnosed with colorectal cancer have no symptoms. This is why it is important to talk with your doctor and see if you should be tested or have a colonoscopy.
Getting tested and colonoscopies
There are many colorectal cancer tests available. Speak with your doctor to determine what test is right for you and when you need it.
These tests are often covered by insurance. For example, everyone age 50 or older with Part B Medicare is covered for these tests. And individuals of any age may be eligible for a colonoscopy.
In particular, Medicare covers screening colonoscopies based on the patient’s risk for having colon cancer. Medicare also covers a screening barium enema or screening flexible sigmoidoscopy as a substitute for a screening colonoscopy.
For those 50 and older on Medicare who are not considered to be at high risk for developing colorectal cancer, Medicare covers one screening colonoscopy every 10 years. To be covered, the test cannot be done within 47 months of a previous screening flexible sigmoidoscopy.
For those on Medicare and at high risk for developing colorectal cancer, Medicare covers one screening colonoscopy every two years, regardless of age.
Preventing colon cancer
To lower your risk of developing colon cancer, maintain a healthy weight, eat a healthy diet and quit smoking. In addition, limit alcohol intake and adopt a physically active lifestyle.
If you’re a Virginia Premier member and would like help in quitting smoking, call our Health Education Department at 1-855-813-3012 for information about smoking cessation programs.
Colorectal Cancer Alliance: ccalliance.org