At age 47, Pati Lanning of Harvey, Louisiana, experienced some rectal bleeding. She had hemorrhoids, so it didn't alarm her, but then the bleeding increased. Her stools got narrower. "I knew these could be signs of colorectal cancer," she says. "I was paralyzed with fear." Pati was lucky to have symptoms, as colorectal cancer often causes none. Getting tested saved her life. While blood in the stool can signal other problems, it's one of the body's signals that should always be investigated.
Colorectal cancer kills more Americans than breast or prostate cancer combined. Everyone over age 50 should be screened regularly. If polyps are found, doctors can remove them before they become cancerous, or while still in the cancer's earliest stages.
Blood in the stool, weight loss, changes in bowel habits, a feeling that the bowel does not quite empty, a new shape to stools, abdominal pain or discomfort, anemia, or fatigue are all possible indicators of a problem.
Prevention: With regular screening and lifestyle changes, more than half of colon cancer deaths can be prevented. If there's a family history of bowel disease or polyps, screening should start earlier and be more frequent. Regular exercise can cut your risk of colorectal cancer in half. And eating a high-fiber diet, avoiding animal fats, and taking multivitamins containing folic acid can also help reduce your risk.
Tests: There are four -- fecal occult blood test, sigmoidoscopy, colonoscopy, and barium enema with X ray -- and no consensus on which is best.
Treatment: Surgery removes the cancerous area. Radiation and chemotherapy may follow.
For more information: Contact the Colon Cancer Alliance at 212-627-7451.