Many Americans were shocked when “Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman died of colon cancer. After all, the 43-year-old actor was far too young to develop the disease, wasn’t he? Here’s why you may need a colonoscopy at a younger age than you think.
Colonoscopy Screening at Age 45
Boseman was just one of the thousands of younger people with colon cancer in the U.S. every year. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), colorectal cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in people under 50.
Fortunately, screening tests can help doctors find cancerous or pre-cancerous growths in the colon long before any symptoms appear. That likely wouldn’t have helped Boseman. He got his diagnosis before the age when experts recommend routine screenings. Still, it's one reason the recommended age for starting routine colonoscopies has been lowered in recent years.
Why Are Colonoscopies So Important?
Fewer older Americans are dying of colorectal cancer, thanks to the availability of screening colonoscopies. But younger people aren’t quite so lucky.
According to the NCI, the colon cancer rate in younger people has more than doubled in the last 30 years. This prompted the American Cancer Society® to lower its recommended age for first colonoscopy from age 50 to 45 in 2018.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force followed suit in late 2020. They pushed for updated guidelines that would lower the suggested age of first colonoscopies to 45.
Colon cancer rarely causes symptoms at first. You may feel perfectly fine even as cancerous cells begin to attack the lining of your rectum or large intestine (colon). By the time you begin to experience any symptoms, the cancer may be quite advanced. Common symptoms of colon cancer are:
- Changes in bowel habits
- Abdominal pain
Benefits of a Lower Age for Colonoscopies
Lowering the age of the first colonoscopy offers these important benefits.
Identification of Pre-Cancerous Polyps
During a colonoscopy, your doctor may remove polyps, which are small growths in your rectum or colon. Polyps can be benign (non-cancerous), pre-cancerous or cancerous. Removing benign and pre-cancerous polyps prevents the growths from ever becoming cancerous. This lowers your risk of developing colorectal cancer.
Earlier Cancer Detection
The sooner you get a diagnosis, the better the outcome. Diagnosing and treating colon cancer early prevents it from spreading. It also increases the survival rate.
Get A Colon Cancer Screening
You have multiple screening options. Talk to your doctor about the right one for you.
How Do Colonoscopies Work?
Colonoscopies allow your doctor to view the lining of your rectum and colon without performing surgery. During the procedure, your doctor inserts a thin, flexible probe into your rectum, then slowly passes it through your large intestine with a miniature camera. This attachment to the end of the probe sends images to a digital monitor.
During a colonoscopy, doctors look for lesions, bleeding areas, polyps, and changes in the lining of the rectum and colon. If your doctor spots a polyp, he or she will remove it and send it to a laboratory for testing. Samples of lesions or bleeding tissue may also be removed for analysis.
If your colonoscopy doesn’t reveal any issues, you won’t need another test for 10 years. If the surgery team discovers a polyp or other concerning change, they may instruct you to repeat colonoscopies more often, such as every 3 or 5 years.
Are You at Risk for Colorectal Cancer?
Although anyone can get colorectal cancer at any age, you may be more likely to develop the disease if you:
- Use alcohol excessively
- Eat a high-fat, low-fiber diet
- Are overweight
- Don’t get enough exercise
- Have an inflammatory bowel disease or a family history of colon cancer
- Have had polyps in the past
Scheduling a colonoscopy is a simple way to protect your health. If you’re 45 or older and haven’t yet had a colonoscopy, consider adding this valuable screening test to your calendar this year.
If you have certain risk factors or any possible symptoms of colorectal cancer, your doctor may recommend you begin screenings at a younger age.
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