A generation or so ago, no one mentioned the word cancer or spoke of the body parts it affected. Fortunately, this has changed and many people are now very open in discussing all aspects of cancer. But this discussion can still be difficult, especially when it involves bodily functions. Speaking about colon cancer and the screening for colon cancer can still make people uncomfortable. Many people want to keep this private; it can be embarrassing and the jokes surrounding the discussion can be awkward.

Colorectal cancer has a profound impact on the people of our region. Colon cancer is a cancer that affects both men and women and it is the second cause of cancer deaths in the United States. About 51,000 people die from colorectal cancer each year. Approximately 1,000 new cases are diagnosed and about 350 patients die from colon cancer annually in northeast Pennsylvania. This makes the incidence rate in some areas of our region as much as 18 percent above the national average and mortality rates as high as 16 percent above the national average. To top it off, 23 million Americans are not up-to-date on their screening.

Recommended screening for colorectal cancer could prevent at least 60 percent of the above-mentioned deaths. Screening can find polyps or abnormal growths so they can be removed before turning into cancer. Screening can also find colorectal cancer early, which is when treatment is most effective. When you hear the term “screening,” it means a test used to look for a disease before there are symptoms. Diagnostic tests are used when a person has symptoms and are to find out what is causing the symptoms.

There is more than one test to find polyps or colorectal cancer. Below is a description of each one.

• High-sensitivity fecal occult blood test (FOBT): You can do this annual test at home and send stool samples to a lab or your doctor.

• Flexible sigmoidoscopy: With this test, the doctor looks for polyps or cancer in the rectum and lower third of the colon. This test should be performed every five years with the FOBT every three years.

• Colonoscopy: With this test, the doctor looks for polyps or cancer in the rectum and the entire colon. A colonoscopy should be performed every 10 years.

Colorectal cancer screening should start at age 50 for men and women of average risk. Each test has its pluses and minuses. Patients and their doctors need to talk about the benefits and risks associated with each screening test as they decide which to use, when to start and how often to be tested.

The exact cause of colorectal cancer is not yet known. A personal or family history of colorectal cancer or polyps; inflammatory bowel disease and some genetic syndromes may increase a persons’ risk of colon cancer. About 75 percent of colorectal cancers occur in people with no known risk factors. Colon cancer or polyps may not cause any symptoms, especially early on. The most effective way to reduce your risk of colorectal cancer is by having regular colorectal cancer screenings beginning at age 50 for most people — don’t wait for symptoms to get screened.

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month and the above recommendations were from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Northeast Regional Cancer Institute is happy to help direct you to additional resources about colorectal cancer and screening.

The Northeast Regional Cancer Institute is a nonprofit, community-based agency working to ease the burden of cancer in Northeastern Pennsylvania.  Focusing on community and patient services, hospital and practice support services and survivorship, 100 percent of Cancer Institute resources are invested in this region.  For more information about the cancer institute, visit www.cancernepa.org or call (800) 424-6724.