The topic of colon cancer is ripe for good-natured joking. The Colon Cancer Prevention Project, started by local gastroenterologist Dr. Whitney Jones, calls its biggest fundraiser “Bottoms Up” and has as its theme “Kicking Butt.”
But Jones makes it clear that it is a serious issue, especially in Kentucky, where we lead the nation in colon cancer incidents. Thanks in part to the work of Jones’ organization, Kentucky has improved its rates for colon cancer screening to rise from 49th among states to 16th.
Colon cancer is a growth in the colon. Small growths called polyps occur and as they grow larger, a certain percentage of them can turn into a cancerous growth called colon cancer.
“We still lead the nation in colon cancer incidents despite the fact that mortality is down 30 percent and our cases are down 27 percent,” Jones said. “Colon cancer used to be a disease of the old and it’s beginning to change to affect younger and younger people. We’re going to try to solve that puzzle in the state of Kentucky.”
Screening is important
Colon cancer is an especially difficult disease to detect. Often, it occurs despite presenting no symptoms. That’s why screening is so important. And Jones said the prevalent advice to get a colonoscopy by age 50 is changing, depending on other factors.
A colonoscopy isn’t the only screening test — but it’s the right choice if you’re at high risk.
If you have no colon cancer in your family, you have no symptoms whatsoever, Jones suggests you can choose from a variety of tests. The colonoscopy is preferred because it can remove pre-cancerous polyps. Non-invasive fecal testing identifies polyps through changes in either blood or DNA in your stool, and then that triggers a colonoscopy to look for those growths.
“The most important thing is choosing a test that’s right for you, and getting the test done,” he said.
Jones said that even in your 20s, you should be aware of three things — first, you can reduce your colon cancer risk by not smoking, eating smart and healthy, exercising and having limited amounts of alcohol. Second, know that colon cancer runs in families, and you should know your family history. Finally, he said that if anyone in your family has had polyps, you’re at a higher risk and need to be checked earlier in your life.
But all that comes with a warning.
“The most important thing I can tell people is that the first sign of colon cancer is there are no symptoms whatsoever,” he said. “You don’t know you have this disease unless you get checked, unless it’s advanced. But if you have symptoms such as rectal bleeding, change in your bowel habits, abdominal pain, unexplained anemia or weight loss – those are all reasons you need to see your doctor immediately.”
Recognizing the increasing risks of colon cancer in younger people, the American Cancer Society recently changed its guidelines for testing to start at age 45, rather than 50. Researchers are working to find out why it’s happening, and haven’t yet reached a conclusion.
“Really smart guys are working on this problem,” Jones said. “In the meantime, I want to make sure everyone is informed in their 20s, 30s and 40s that this disease is coming for you; your risk is up significantly over the past decade.”
In fact, he said that individuals born after 1990 are 200 percent more at risk than someone born in the 1950s. He calls it a slow motion epidemic.
March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month, an opportunity for organizations such as Louisville’s Colon Cancer Prevention Project to raise awareness and encourage people to get tested.
“In the old days, a cancer diagnosis was a death sentence,” Jones said. “That’s old world thinking. Cancers are not following our old rules. Screening is your initial check. if you have polyps, you need to undergo surveillance. If you had zero, you may good for 10 years.”