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March 15, 2023

Ask the expert: Discussing myths surrounding colorectal cancer


Colorectal cancer affects more than 150,000 people each year, yet persistent myths surrounding this illness often keep people from talking to their doctors about it.

Jacquelyn Charbel is an assistant professor in the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine, a colorectal surgeon and MSU Health Care provider. She discusses myths around colorectal cancer. 

Let's talk about colon health. It seems that colon cancer screening is not a priority for many people. Why should somebody get screened?

Everyone should be screened for colon cancer because it affects both men and women. Colon cancer is the third leading cancer in the United States in both men and women and kills 50,000 people per year. In fact, the American Cancer Society lowered the guidelines from age 50 to 45 for your first screening colonoscopy because we have seen an increase in colon cancer in people younger than 50.

What is colorectal cancer?

Colon and rectal cancers arise most commonly due to polyps that are not removed. Not all polyps become cancer, but most cancers do come from colon polyps. So, it's really important to have the polyps removed before they make that cancerous transition.

What are some risk factors?

Risk factors for colon cancer include a family history of the disease, lack of physical activity, morbid obesity, a low vitamin D level, and excessive consumption of red meat, soda and alcohol.

Can anything be done to prevent colon cancer?

Yes, you can do a lot to prevent colon cancer. The best thing you can do is to make sure you're up to date on your colon cancer screening, namely colonoscopy. The other things you can do include eating a healthy diet, making sure you're not consuming too much alcohol, avoiding smoking and getting plenty of physical activity. Adding more fiber into your diet is also key.

I would like people to know that colon and rectal cancers are preventable. You just have to make sure that you're being screened. That is your best bet for a good outcome.

How does one get screened for colon cancer?

There are many ways to screen for colon cancer. The gold standard for screening is a colonoscopy because it can diagnose and remove polyps at the same time. Other screening modalities include fecal occult blood tests, computed tomography, colonography or the Cologuard test. All of these tests are less specific than colonoscopy, and none of them remove polyps.

What is a polyp?

A polyp is an overgrowth of colon tissue. Polyps can be either benign or malignant. It is important to remove them while they’re still benign and prior to them becoming malignant.

If polyps are found in my colon, does that mean I have cancer? 

Many people are found to have colon polyps. Most of the polyps do not develop into cancer, however, it is important to remove polyps before they have that opportunity.

There are many myths around colon cancer. Can you address them?

First, many people think colon cancer only affects older white males, but that is not the case. Colon cancer affects men and women of all backgrounds. Both women and men should be up to date on their colonoscopies, as colon cancer is the third leading cancer for both genders.

One of the most prevalent myths is that getting a colonoscopy will be a horrible experience. And people think, ’They probably won’t find anything anyway.’ But a colonoscopy can be done much easier these days. Our technology has improved with the anesthesia you receive. Most patients take a nice nap, and when they wake up, they can’t believe it’s over.

Another myth is that colorectal cancer is fatal, but colorectal cancer doesn't have to be fatal. You will have a good outcome if you catch the cancer early or prevent it entirely by having your screening colonoscopies. 

Also, some think that screening is only necessary for those who experience symptoms. Screening is necessary for everyone. Most people who develop colon cancer don't even know they have it. You cannot rely on symptoms alone to be a reason for screening.

Lastly, I want to mention that while individuals with a family history of colon cancer have a higher likelihood of developing the disease, the majority of colon cancer patients do not have a family history of it. Again, everyone should get screened.

A lot of people are worried about the colonoscopy preparation. Is it that bad?

Just like a colonoscopy, the preparation has gotten better over the years. In the past, patients had to drink a special liquid, and now we have a prep that’s pill based that a lot of patients prefer. Now there is a kit available where you take 12 pills the day before and 12 pills the day of with copious amounts of water. There is no unpleasant taste. 

Anything else we should know?

Often, people think there is nothing they can do to avoid colon cancer. There is something you can do: be your own patient advocate. Talk to your care provider about screening for colon and rectal cancers. That’s your best chance for a good outcome.


By: Nardy Baeza Bickel

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