Disease Prevention in Women

  • Medical Author:
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

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Cancer of colon and rectum / polyps of colon and rectum

Colorectal cancer is the second most common cause of death from cancer overall, and ranks third in both women (after lung and breast cancer) and men (after lung and prostate cancer).

Scientists believe that majority of the colon cancers develop from colonic polyps (precancerous growths on the inner surface of the colon). These tumors may become malignant, with the cells invading locally or spreading (metastasizing) to other parts of the body.

Colon cancer is preventable by removing colon polyps before they evolve into a cancer. Colon cancer is curable if removed before spread occurs.

Screening tests

  • Stool occult blood test: Stool occult blood test is a chemical test to detect trace amounts of blood in the stool. It is inexpensive and easily performed, though not always accurate. Some cancers are not detected by the test, and many positive tests are caused by other problems beside cancer.
  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy: Flexible sigmoidoscopy is a relatively quick and easy office procedure which allows direct visualization and biopsy of suspicious lesions from the distal portion of the colon. The procedure is uncomfortable, and it is less accurate than a full colonoscopy.
  • Colonoscopy: Colonoscopy allows visualization of the entire colon and is the most complete and thorough test. It requires intravenous sedation, is much more expensive, and is not covered by some insurance plans as a screening procedure. Although screening colonoscopies may have a slightly higher risk of complications than flexible sigmoidoscopies, both screening tests are very safe when performed by trained professionals.

Who to test and how often

All healthy subjects should have stool occult blood tests and flexible sigmoidoscopy at age 50, followed by stool occult blood annually and flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years.

Alternatively, instead of flexible sigmoidoscopy, all healthy subjects can undergo screening colonoscopy at age 50 and then every 10 years if tests remain normal and there is no prior history of polyps or cancer.

Higher risk patients (individuals with a family history of colonic polyps or cancer, long standing ulcerative colitis, or a prior personal history of colon polyps or cancer) require colonoscopy earlier and more frequently.

Benefits of early detection

Stool occult blood test, flexible sigmoidoscopy, and colonoscopy have been documented to reduce colon cancer mortality by:

  1. Preventing colon cancer by identifying and removing polyps before they become cancerous.
  2. Increasing cancer cure rate by identifying early cancer at a treatable stage before the cancer has spread (metastasized).
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 5/13/2016

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