Why colon cancer tests mean a lot to women

Cancer is among the major non-communicable diseases (NCDs) that are of great public health concern in Kenya.

In women, the most prevalent types of cancer include breast, cervical, oesophagus and colorectum.

The latter, also referred to as colon or rectal cancer, usually affects the colon and rectum, which are parts of the large intestine.

Its symptoms include blood in the stool, a change in bowel movements — diarrhoea, constipation or lump in the abdomen, unexplained weight loss and fatigue.

Just as with other cancers, it is recommended that people undergo screening tests early enough since prompt diagnosis and treatment enhance treatment success rates and survival outcomes.

The standard test for diagnosing colorectal cancer is known as a colonoscopy. It is performed using a long, flexible tube (colonoscope), which is inserted into the colon through the anus to check for polyps or growths that usually cause the disease.

A tiny video camera at the tip of the tube allows the doctor to view the inside of the entire colon via a screen. If polyps are discovered at the very early stages, they can be surgically removed, protecting patients from getting cancer.

This is because most colorectal cancers start as growths in the inner lining of the colon. In the beginning, these growths may be harmless. But some of them may end up becoming cancerous after a couple of years.

Even if the colonoscopy tests reveal that cancer has already developed from polyps in patients undergoing the screening, doctors note that all hope is not lost since the disease can be effectively treated in its early stages.

Due to these immense benefits of colorectal cancer screening, women are often encouraged to consider having the tests as they get older, from 50 years old.

Even though this has been the recommendation for many years, new studies are challenging this screening guideline, owing to the many women increasingly being diagnosed with the condition much earlier.

A new study published in the JAMA Oncology Journal concurs with this point of view. The finding of this research recommends that women begin undergoing screening for colorectal cancer early enough before they reach the age of 50.

According to the research, this shift in check-ups or tests for the disease can go a long way in significantly reducing women’s chances of suffering from cancer, which is increasingly being diagnosed among younger populations.

“While there’s been an alarming increase in the incidence of colorectal cancer in recent decades in younger individuals, screening has largely been focused on people over 50,” says Dr Andrew Chan, a gastroenterologist and senior author of the study from the US-based Massachusetts General Hospital, where the research was conducted.

“Our work provides first-of-its-kind data to show that initiating screening at a younger age can reduce an individual’s risk of colorectal cancer and the population’s overall incidence of cancer, thus demonstrating the substantial impact of earlier screening on both individual and population-wide scales.”

The findings of the new study, which was funded by the US National Cancer Institute and National Institutes of Health, emanated from extensive research involving 111,801 women.

The scientists undertaking the study specifically found that there was a 50 percent to 60 percent lower risk of colorectal cancer among women who started screening at age 45 compared to those who had not undergone screening at all.

In addition, they learned that starting screening at ages 45 to 49 resulted in a significant reduction in the population’s actual cases of colorectal cancer diagnosed through age 60, compared to a strategy in which women began screening at ages 50 to 54.

While the study was focused on women, Dr Chan suggests the same benefits of early screening likely accrue to men. Nevertheless, he notes that further studies are still needed for confirmation among the male population.

“Any trepidation that clinicians might have had about the effectiveness of colorectal cancer screening at a younger age will hopefully be allayed by these results,” he says.

“Our data show that we have an effective tool to address the epidemic of colorectal cancer among younger adults, and hopefully this will encourage physicians to have a conversation about screening with their younger patients which, in turn, will motivate them to follow through and get screened.”

Aside from the early screening, lifestyle changes that can reduce the risk of colorectal cancer include healthy diets (comprising of a variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains), no smoking, moderate consumption of alcohol (if at all), exercising for 30 minutes (at least five days a week) and maintaining a healthy weight.

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