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Colorectal cancer screenings should begin at age 50; March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month

INDIANAPOLIS -- (March 01, 2011) -- While recuperating in the hospital three years ago after a second heart attack, Mark Burton decided to say something to his doctor.

"You know, I'm 51 years old, and I've never had a colonoscopy," he told his doctor.

Although he had no family history of colorectal cancer and he wasn't experiencing any symptoms, Burton, an Avon, Ind., resident knew from his medical background as a paramedic that people should start screenings at age 50.

His doctor ordered a colonoscopy, a procedure which allows a doctor to see inside the entire colon. Colon cancer typically develops over a period of years as abnormalities form into growths -- or polyps -- in the lining of the colon. If a polyp is found, it may be removed and tissue may be sent to the lab to see if any cancer is present. By removing a polyp, cancer cells can't develop.

Colorectal cancer screening 

Typically, a person should have a colorectal cancer screening done at age 50 if they are of average risk, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).

However, if you are at an increased risk of colorectal cancer, you should begin screenings earlier and/or be screened more often. The ACS considers a person at increased risk if they have:

  • a personal history of colorectal cancer
  • a personal history of chronic inflammatory bowel disease
  • a strong family history of colorectal cancer or polyps (cancer or polyps in a first-degree relative (parent, sibling or child) younger than 60, or in two first-degree relatives of any age)
  • a known family history of hereditary colorectal cancer symptoms

In addition to colonoscopy, there are other screening options. Talk with your physician about the different options.

Burton’s colonoscopy revealed that he had a growth, which needed to be surgically removed.

How could he have colorectal cancer, the third deadliest form of cancer, Burton wondered. "I had no pain. No nothing," he said. "I couldn't have been more shocked."

Colorectal cancer symptoms

Although Burton did not have any noticeable symptoms, some signs of colorectal cancer  include:  

  • a change in bowel habits
  • blood in stool
  • abdominal pain
  • bloating
  • nausea
  • vomiting

Talk with your doctor about any symptoms you may be experiencing. Symptoms do not mean you have cancer, but they should be discussed with a physician.

Burton’s surgery removed his cancer, but as a preventive measure, he underwent six months of chemotherapy.

A life-long sports fan, a father, and grandfather of two, Burton said cancer changed him.

"I tend to enjoy life more," he said. "I'm eating better than I ever did. I eat much healthier. I ate a lot of red meat before; now I eat fish, chicken and vegetables."

He added, “People need to have a colonoscopy."