by Jennifer Delliskave

Eventually, undiscovered colon cancer comes out of the shadows.   That’s why preventive screening for colon cancer is critical.  Dr. Adam Meziani, a surgeon with the Southeast Idaho Surgical Group, warns, “The most common warning sign of colon cancer is nothing. Don’t wait for symptoms. If you’ve had too many birthdays, meaning you’re 45 or older, you need to get checked.” 

There is a very good reason to start testing early for colon cancer: it is the second most common cause of cancer death in the United States. And, it can hide itself very well.   

“Colon cancer is very common. I call it an insidious cancer,” says Dr. Meziani.  “Other types of cancer have obvious risk factors: lung cancer is associated with smoking; skin cancer is associated with spending too much time in the sun. We know that people who smoke risk getting cancer. But with colon cancer, anyone can get it. There are certainly diets that can help prevent it, but everyone is at risk regardless.”

Colon cancer appears as one or more symptoms, but can still disguise itself as other health conditions. Changes in bowel habits that last more than a few days (diarrhea, constipation, or narrowing of the stool) or changes in stool appearance (dark brown or black color caused by blood in the stool) are common symptoms of colon cancer. Other indicators are rapid weight loss, constant fatigue, cramping, and abdominal pain.

“This is why it is important to visit your primary care provider if you experience changes in your health,” explains Dr. Meziani. “Of course, it is best to get a screening colonoscopy, before symptoms appear. Colonoscopies can be either diagnostic or preventive.” For those with a family history of colon cancer, age 40 is the recommended time to get a colonoscopy. For everyone else, the recommendation is to start getting colonoscopies at age 45.

“No one is happy to get a colonoscopy. It’s one of those things we don’t bring up in polite conversation. And people always say the preparation is the worst part of the procedure.”

By “preparation,” Dr. Meziani means the process of cleaning out the intestines and colon, which used to involve drinking what felt like gallons of icky fluid over a long period of time. Luckily, things have changed.

“Now, we use the split-prep method. We’ve found that it’s not the volume of the prep fluid that’s effective, it’s the timing. So now, the patient drinks smaller doses—half the night before and the other half 4 hours before the procedure,” says Dr. Meziani. “During the procedure, sedation keeps the patient comfortable. They don’t remember anything and are back to normal in a few hours.”

With a colonoscopy, the doctor can see and remove polyps, which could be precancerous, as well as find cancer itself. Polyps are sent to a pathologist, who determines whether they are precancerous or benign. The number and type of polyps determine when the patient needs to have a follow-up colonoscopy.

“If we are fortunate enough to discover cancer during a screening, it’s more likely to be in the early stages,” Dr. Meziani explains. “Catching it early often means less chemo, fewer treatments, less tissue removed during surgery, and it increases the patient’s chance of being cured.”

In addition to early and regular screening, there is another way people can lower their overall risk of developing colorectal cancer.

“As a culture, Americans have poor diets. We tend to eat a ‘meat and potatoes’ diet,” says Dr. Meziani. “We don’t eat enough healthy fruits and vegetables. A high-fiber diet is one thing you can do reduce your risk of colon cancer.”

Last, but not least, emphasizes Dr. Meziani, “Don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor about this. I know some people think it is embarrassing, but it’s better to talk to the doctor now than wait and find cancer when it’s too late. It’s better to catch it early when it is most treatable.”