Did you know that colon cancer can be prevented through screening or caught early, when treatment is most effective? Unfortunately, about one third of Americans 50 years and older are not getting the recommended testing, and there has also been a concerning increase in the number of people under age 50 being diagnosed with colon cancer.

What is colon cancer?

Colon cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the large intestine, known as the colon, and is the final part of the digestive tract. Colon cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in both men and women in the United States. If found early, the 5-year survival rate for colon cancer is 90%.

Since the COVID-19 health crisis began, fewer people are scheduling colonoscopies and other preventative screenings. Doctors worry that delaying those importance procedures may put people at risk.

“These polyps take between 5-8 years to turn into a malignancy or a tumor, and that may very well be a late-term consequence of decreased interaction between patients and health care providers,” says Dr. Jubeen Moaven, a gastroenterologist with Eugene Gastroenterology Consultants.

Colon cancer cases increasing among younger people

A new report released in spring 2020 by the American Cancer Society shows that the incidence of colorectal cancer is declining in older people, but increasing in younger people.

While no one can say for sure why that is, it’s believed poor diet, smoking, a sedentary lifestyle and obesity all play a role.

“About 30-40% of our country is obese,” says gastroenterologist Dr. Nathan Holman. “Fat has been shown to change the hormonal environment in your body and that can certainly promote cancer cells to grow. Fat can also lead to systemic inflammation that can encourage tumor growth.”

Dr. Holman says a colonoscopy is recommended for people starting at age 50, or younger if you have a family history. “But certainly, if you have any alarming symptoms, like you’re seeing blood in your stool or you’re starting to get anemic, or things like that, by all means, it’s worth talking to your doctor because that’s something that we need to watch for.”

Symptoms of colon cancer

Many people with colon cancer experience no symptoms in the early stage of the disease. When symptoms appear, they likely vary, depending on the cancer’s size and location in your large intestine, but may include:

  • A change in bowel habits, such as diarrhea, constipation or narrowing of the stool, that lasts for more than a few days
  • A feeling that you need to have a bowel movement that is not relieved by doing so
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Dark stools or blood in the stool
  • Cramping or abdominal pain
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Unintended weight loss

Cancer treatment and patient safety

As members of the Oregon Cancer Alliance (OCA), Eugene Gastroenterology Consultants is part of a network of community cancer specialists who work together on behalf of newly diagnosed patients to create a coordinated treatment plan.

Clinics in the OCA network are following strict protocols to assure patients that safety is a top priority at all times, but especially during the current health crisis. Safety protocols include:

  • Requiring patients and staff to wear face masks and have their temperatures checked before entering the clinics
  • Providing fewer chairs with more spacing to allow for social distancing in waiting areas
  • Sanitizing exam rooms and high-touch surfaces in between each patient
  • Providing more patient appointments through telemedicine
  • Requiring COVID-19 testing prior to procedures

“That testing is effective, it’s paid for by the CARES Act and it provides an additional layer of safety for all of our patients,” says Dr. Moaven.

How colon cancer is treated depends on how early the disease is caught but may include surgery, radiation therapy and drug treatments, such as chemotherapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy. Learn more here.