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Essentia Health encourages prioritizing digestive health

By Anthony Matt

Colorectal, or colon, cancer is one of the most commonly occurring cancers in the United States. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), it is estimated that there will be more than 152,000 new cases of colon and rectal cancer reported in the U.S. in 2024 alone.

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month and is the perfect opportunity to talk to your provider about any concerns you may have or to schedule a screening.

Colorectal cancer is a disease in which cells in the colon or rectum grow out of control. Sometimes abnormal growths, called polyps, form and over time may turn into cancer.

Regular screenings, beginning at age 45, are the key to preventing colorectal cancer or detecting it at its most treatable stage. Screenings can detect the signs of colorectal cancer before you notice symptoms. How often you should screen depends on the type of screening you choose. Talk with your primary care provider to determine what is best for you.

Colonoscopies are the most effective screening method. A colonoscopy is a procedure in which a fiber-optic scope with a camera is inserted into the colon to look for polyps and other growths, some of which can be removed at the same time.

“A colonoscopy is a procedure that is both diagnostic and preventive, meaning that we can rule out colon cancer AND remove colon polyps at the same time,” explained Dr. Kimberly Kolkhorst, a gastroenterologist at Essentia Health. “By removing polyps, we prevent them from growing into colon cancer. I can’t tell you how many patients who I’ve diagnosed with colon cancer say that they wish they had had a screening colonoscopy sooner.

“Many patients with colon cancer have made it their mission to get the word out about screening colonoscopies. It’s one day out of your schedule and it is well worth it! Colonoscopies are a life-saving measure!”

Minus the presence of polyps, and if there is no family history of colon cancer, colonoscopies can occur every 10 years.

In addition to colonoscopies, there are also a pair of stool-based tests that can be done at home. These rely on examining stool-sample irregularities that may prompt a colonoscopy. Learn more about these tests at EssentiaHealth.org.

When to seek care

Patients should consider seeing their primary care physician if they are experiencing any of the following:

A change in bowel habits

Blood in or on your stool.

Diarrhea, constipation or feeling that the bowel does not empty all the way.

Persistent abdominal pain, aches or cramps.

Unexplained weight loss.

Your doctor may refer you to a gastroenterologist, a doctor specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of the liver and digestive system, for more specialized care and diagnostic testing.

Risk factors for colorectal cancer include:

Inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis.

A personal or family history of colorectal cancer or polyps.

Overweight or obesity.

Sedentary lifestyle.

Alcohol and tobacco use.

Diet low in fruit and vegetables.

A low-fiber and high-fat diet, or a diet high in processed meats.

The risk of getting colorectal cancer increases with age; however, younger demographics are being impacted by this disease. According to a 2024 report from the ACS, colorectal cancer has moved up from being the fourth-leading cause of cancer death in both men and women under age 50 two decades ago to first in men and second in women.

“Colon cancer is something that we all need to be talking more about,” said Dr. Kolkhorst. “If you’re having symptoms, please speak up and talk to a health care provider. Raising awareness for this disease is what will help prevent more diagnoses and, if found, allow us to diagnose it at earlier stages.”

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