Top Myths About Colon Cancer, Debunked

Formerly of RPCI
Thursday, March 8, 2012 - 1:15pm

Each year, more than 50,000 people die of colorectal cancer. The good news is that death rates are on a steady decline, and the American Cancer Society (ACS) projects that the 2020 death rate will be 50% lower than the 2000 rate. That forecast is based on the assumption that more people will take advantage of colon cancer screening, fewer people will smoke, consumption of red meat will decline, and more effective chemotherapy drugs will be introduced.

In order to protect yourself against colorectal cancer, you need the facts. 

Myth 1: Colon cancer is a white man's disease
Colon cancer affects men and women equally, and it affects all races. In 2010, for example, there were 102,900 new cases of colon cancer (49,470 in men and 53,430 in women), according to the American Cancer Society.

Young adults can develop colorectal cancer, but the number one risk factor is increasing age. More than 9 out of 10 people diagnosed with colorectal cancer are older than 50. However, of all ethnic groups in the U.S., African Americans do have the highest risk of developing and dying of colon cancer.

Myth 2: Having no symptoms means I don't have colon cancer
One of the most common misconceptions is that symptoms will be evident if a person has colorectal cancer. More than half of people diagnosed with colon cancer have no symptoms. 
Symptoms such as a change in stool, rectal bleeding, abdominal pain and unexplained weight loss can all signal colon cancer. But once these symptoms begin to develop, it may be a sign of more advanced disease.

Myth 3: Colorectal cancer cannot be prevented.
In many cases colorectal cancer can be prevented. Colorectal cancer almost always starts with a small growth called a polyp. If the polyp is found early using screening procedures like a colonoscopy, doctors can remove it and stop colorectal cancer before it starts. Please remember that a polyp does NOT mean you have cancer. Polyps are benign growths, though some have the potential to turn cancerous.

Myth 4: Colonoscopy is unpleasant and uncomfortable.
It's not as bad as you think. During the actual procedure, you will be sedated to eliminate discomfort. The procedure itself takes 15-30 minutes, and you can resume normal activities the next day. Read Maggie Spadinger’s What is Colonoscopy and Why is it Important?  post to learn more about colonoscopy.

Myth 5: Everyone should get a colonoscopy since it’s the only way to screen 
for colorectal cancer.
Colonoscopy screening is recommended for men and women beginning at age 50, unless other risk factors exist. 
If you're 50 or older, ask your doctor about screening. If you are younger but have other risk factors - such as a family history of colon cancer, obesity, smoking, ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease - talk to your doctor about your screening needs.

There are several screening options, including flexible sigmoidoscopy and fecal occult blood test. Colonoscopy is considered the gold standard. It detects more cancers, examines the entire colon, and can be used for screening, diagnosis and removing precancerous polyps in one visit.

Myth 6: If I have colon cancer, it means I'm dying.
The misconception that colon cancer is a death sentence arises, in part, from the fact that at the time of diagnosis, up to 20% to 25% of colorectal cancer patients also have liver tumors. But patients with colorectal cancer that has metastasized to the liver can still be cured, with access to a range of treatment options at Roswell Park’s Liver and Pancreas Tumor Center.

The most important thing to remember is that when caught early, colon cancer has a 90% survival rate. That's why screening is so important.

Nadia Eloudi is no longer employed at Roswell Park.