MARQUETTE - Regular screenings for colorectal cancer can be one of the most important visits to a doctor's office that a person will ever make.
"The most common early symptom of colon cancer is nothing at all," said Dr. James Surrell, a board-certified colon and rectal surgeon with Marquette General Hospital. "Even in the absence of any symptoms, people should follow the guidelines for screening."
Surrell said he typically uses a couple of tests to screen for cancer: a fecal occult blood test, which is used to identify blood in stool samples, and a colonoscopy, which can be used to look at the whole colon.
Colorectal cancer, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, is the second leading cancer killer in the U.S. In 2008, alone, 142,950 people were diagnosed with the cancer, and 52,857 died from it. The worst part of those statistics, Surrell said, is that the disease is largely avoidable.
"Colon cancer is preventable because nearly all of these colon and rectal cancers start out as a polyp, or a small growth, on the lining of the colon," he said.
In 2008, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force published a set of recommendations on screening for colorectal cancer and suggested adults begin getting routine screenings at age 50.
People with a family history or certain risk factors should consider being screened earlier in life. It is best to get screened earlier than age 50 if you or a close relative have had colorectal polyps or cancer, if you have inflammatory bowel disease or if you have certain genetic syndromes.
Surrell said he suggests patients begin getting screened annually at age 50; if they have additional risk factors, they should start screenings at age 40, he said. In the absence of symptoms, he suggests a yearly fecal occult blood test and a colonoscopy performed every five to 10 years.
Though people often fret them, Surrell said a colonoscopy is a painless and very important procedure done under light anesthesia.
"The advantage of having a colonoscopy is that it's not only a diagnostic test ... but we can treat with it," he said. "If there's a polyp, we remove the polyp, and we're done."
Both men and women get colorectal cancer, which is most prevalent in people aged 50 and over, and the risk of contracting the cancer increases with age. Surrell said the risk of colorectal cancer will also increase based on behavior. Smoking regularly, for instance, will increase your chance of colon cancer by 18 percent, he said.
The CDC suggests physical activity, eating fruits and vegetables regularly, limited alcohol consumption and avoidance of tobacco to reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.
Signs of colorectal cancer, according to the CDC, include blood in your stool, stomach pain, aches or cramps that won't go away and unexplained weight loss. Surrell said that screening is vital because by the time symptoms crop up, they "may represent a large polyp or something that has already developed into a cancer."
While all of the symptoms can be caused by things other than cancer, people are urged to visit a doctor if they are experiencing any of them.
"It is very important you know your family history ... try to follow a healthy high fiber diet and in the presence of any symptoms, see your physician right away for evaluation," Surrell said. "Don't ignore the symptoms."
Kyle Whitney can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.