Colon cancer isn't exactly a typical topic of family dinner conversation, but it shouldn’t be taboo.
Knowing your sister recently had a pre-cancerous polyp removed from her colon, or that your father began getting colonoscopies at age 40 because of Crohn’s disease, could have serious implications on your health and timing for when you begin regular screenings for colon cancer.
First-degree relatives – that includes parents, siblings and children – of people who have had colorectal cancer or polyps are twice or three times as likely to develop polyps and colon or rectal cancer, says Craig Reickert, M.D., a colorectal surgeon at Henry Ford Health.
“Those with a family history of colon polyps or colon cancer often need to start colon cancer screening before the recommended age of 45, and/or be screened more frequently than people who are at average risk,” he says.
Having The Colon Cancer Talk With Family
Colon cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death among men and women in the U.S. It’s estimated that 5 to 10% of colon cancer cases occur with some inherited genetic component.
While the hereditary risk of developing colon cancer is comparatively small, knowing your family health history could be the difference between catching colon cancer early – when it is highly treatable – or at a more advanced stage that requires surgery, chemotherapy and possibly radiation therapy.
To start the conversation with your family, Dr. Reickert recommends asking these questions:
- Has anyone in the family been diagnosed with colon cancer?
- Have any family members had a pre-cancerous or cancerous colon polyp removed? If so, how many polyps were removed?
- At what age was this family member diagnosed with a colon polyp or colon cancer?
- Does anyone have chronic conditions like Crohn’s disease or/and ulcerative colitis, placing them at higher risk for colon cancer?
- For family members in their 50s and 60s: Are you up-to-date on your colon cancer screenings? What were the results?
Once you have your answers, follow up with your physician to discuss next steps to begin screening colonoscopy – and encourage family members to do the same.
The Colonoscopy Conversation
If you have a family or personal risk for colon cancer (or colon polyps), colonoscopy is the best option for colon cancer screening. It should also be talked about in family discussions, Dr. Reickert says.
Standard guidelines recommend that colon cancer screening begin at age 45 for those at average risk. But if you have family members who have previously been diagnosed with polyps or colon cancer, you may need to start colonoscopies earlier. In most cases, screening should begin 10 years before the age your first-degree relative was diagnosed.
It's understandable that some people are wary of colonoscopy because of the preparation required. They may also have concerns about being uncomfortable during the procedure.
"But it's important to keep in mind that colonoscopy provides us with a more definitive view of someone's risk," says Dr. Reickert. "It allows us to see polyps and remove them before they become cancerous. And all it takes is a day of prep and one 30-minute procedure.”
Still getting resistance from family members? Dr. Reickert suggests explaining it like this: You change the oil in your car so you don’t have to replace the entire motor. Colonoscopy is just like that oil change—it’s preventative maintenance to extend your life and avoid invasive treatments down the line, including surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
When colon cancer is caught at stage 1, the five-year survival rate is 90 to 95%. But when it has advanced to stage 4 with cancer spreading to other organs, colon cancer is only controllable, not curable, says Dr. Reickert. The five-year survival rate for stage 4 colon cancer is 20 to 25%.
“It’s really important to know your inherited risk. Stress to your family members that colonoscopy is a minor inconvenience with a prolonged benefit,” says Dr. Reickert. “When diagnosed early, colon cancer is preventable and curable.”
To make an appointment for your colonoscopy or to talk with your doctor about your risk, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-436-7936.
Dr. Craig Reickert is the Division Head of Colon and Rectal Surgery at Henry Ford Hospital. He also sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Center – Grosse Pointe.