Colorectal cancer is generally found in men and women age 50 or older, but it does not discriminate between age groups, race or ethnicity. If you have a family history of colon cancer or colon polyps, it can occur at an earlier age.

As one of the most common, but most preventable cancers, colorectal cancer screening should be on anyone’s calendar who may be at risk for the disease. Screening can find precancerous polyps, which are abnormal growths in the colon or rectum, that can be removed before they become cancer.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about nine out of every 10 people whose colorectal cancers are found early and received appropriate treatment are still alive five years later. Screening helps find any colorectal cancer at an early stage, when treatment is most effective.

Regular screening is the key to preventing colorectal cancer, and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that adults age 50 to 75 receive the screening at regular intervals.

If you think you are at risk, ask your doctor about when to begin screening, which test is right for you and how frequently you should be tested.

A colonoscopy is a simple procedure that allows your doctor to look inside the entire large intestine. It is frequently performed to detect early signs of cancer in the colon and rectum.

The test also may be done to obtain a tissue sample for biopsy, diagnose inflammatory bowel disease or evaluate unexplained abnormalities (such as polyps), anemia, blood in the stool, abdominal pain or persistent diarrhea.

Preparation for a colonoscopy usually begins several days before the actual procedure. Your doctor will provide instructions for the prep, which must be followed to ensure an effective screening. On the day of the procedure, you will be given a moderate sedative and pain medication to help you relax and keep you comfortable during the exam.

Images of your colon are transmitted by a colonoscope onto a video screen so your doctor can examine the intestinal lining. Polyps can be removed using tiny tools inserted through the scope. Tissue samples will be sent to the lab to determine if they are cancerous.

Most colonoscopy procedures last approximately a half hour, plus time for preparation and recovery. You should be able to return to normal activities by the next day.

To find out more about your risk for colorectal cancer and screening recommendations, talk to your doctor.  

- Debora McClary, MD, is a colorectal surgeon on the medical staff at Abrazo Arrowhead Campus in Glendale.