Time is on your side when it comes to colorectal cancer forming inside you. The process is estimated to take 10 years, a period that leaves ample opportunity for early discovery and treatment.
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But that decade of growing time isn’t a reason to delay or ignore the need for a colon and rectal cancer screening. It’s the reason why you should get it done ASAP when the time for testing finally comes.
Colorectal surgeon Rebecca Gunter, MD, explains why.
A colon polyp begins with a gene mutation in one of the countless cells lining your colon. These cells are constantly dividing — and with each division, any mutations can get passed along and added.
This is where it helps to know that cells in your colon grow and divide a lot. How much? Put it this way: You replace the entire lining of your colon once a week.
“As cells with mutations build up on the lining of your colon, they can form a small cluster that appears as a polyp,” says Dr. Gunter. “A polyp can enlarge as mutated cells start growing faster and living longer.”
Eventually in all this activity, a polyp mutation may take a turn toward cancer. The good news? Very few polyps become cancerous.
However, most polyps have a chance to become cancerous — a reality that is enough of a reason for concern. That’s why any polyp found during a colonoscopy is removed during the procedure.
Thankfully, a polyp’s journey to becoming cancerous is a slow-moving process. As mentioned earlier, it takes about a decade (or 10 years) for a colorectal polyp to evolve from harmless to deadly.
That window of time is why getting a colon cancer screening is so crucial. Polyps can be found before they become life-threatening — but you must go looking for the problem to find it.
Colon cancer often doesn’t cause noticeable symptoms until it’s more advanced.
“We have the ability to find and remove polyps early to minimize cancer risk,” says Dr. Gunter. “That’s why we can’t emphasize enough the importance of getting a colorectal screening when the time comes.”
The American Cancer Society recommends beginning colorectal cancer screenings at age 45. Earlier testing is encouraged if you have elevated risk factors such as a family history of colorectal cancer.
A colonoscopy is considered the “gold standard” in colorectal cancer screening given that it allows for both the detection and removal of polyps, says Dr. Gunter. The procedure is an examination of the inside of your large intestine, which includes your colon, rectum and anus.
Now does anyone look forward to a colonoscopy? Probably not. But the half-hour procedure (as well as prepping ahead of time) isn’t as bad as you might fear. Plus, a colonoscopy only needs to be done once every 10 years if no abnormalities or polyps are found.
Other screening options include at-home stool tests, where you collect your poop and send it off to a lab for analysis every year or so. This test looks for abnormal cells or blood that may indicate cancer.
Stool tests can be effective, but they are not as accurate as a colonoscopy and do not eliminate pesky polyps. And if the test results do hint at a potential problem … well, your next step would be a colonoscopy.
“Talk to your healthcare provider about what option might be best for you,” says Dr. Gunter. “Just make sure to get screened for colorectal cancer in some way. Doing so could be lifesaving.”