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Who is More Likely to Get Colon Cancer?

Focused on Health - March 2010

by Adelina Espat

Most people over age 50 should get a colonoscopy every 10 years. But, for others, starting at age 50 or getting screened every 10 years is not soon enough.

How do you know if you fall into this “other” group?

The answer depends on how likely you are to get colorectal (colon) cancer. This information will tell your doctor when and how often you should get tested.

Let’s look at examples of people who are more likely to get colorectal cancer. Based on their risk profiles, we’ll provide the right MD Anderson screening schedule to check for cancer. 

Tom has a history of precancerous colon polyps
man with precancerous polypsTom is 52 years old. At Tom’s last colonoscopy, his doctor found and removed polyps (growths on the lining of his colon). A couple of days later, his doctor’s office called to say that the polyps were benign, which means he doesn’t have cancer.  

Tom was relieved but knew that having polyps might increase his chances of getting colorectal cancer, so he asked his doctor for more details. He asked for the:

  • Number of polyps
  • Type of each polyp
  • Size of each polyp

His doctor said he found two polyps. He called them “adenomatous” colon polyps and said they were small, less than 1 cm each (smaller than the width of his pinkie). Tom kept note of this information and asked his doctor when he should come in for another colonoscopy.

Based on this information, MD Anderson would recommend that from now on Tom get his colonoscopy every five years, instead of every 10, to stay cancer-free.  

What have we learned from Tom?
It’s important to keep track of the number, size and type of colon polyps that your doctor found at your last exam. This information tells your doctor if your chances of getting colorectal cancer are higher than normal. It also tells your doctor how often you should get a colonoscopy.  Following colon cancer screening guidelines definitely helps reduce your chances of getting colorectal cancer.

READ ALSO: Ensure success with colonoscopy prep

Jane’s dad has a history of precancerous colon polyps
woman with family history of polypsJane is 35 years old. At last year’s Thanksgiving celebration, her dad mentioned that his doctor found   more abnormal polyps during his last colonoscopy. He assured her that the doctor said they were not cancer, but they all had the potential to become cancer, so the doctor took them out.

Because Jane’s dad is 59 years old and his doctor found precancerous polyps at his last two colonoscopies, MD Anderson recommends that Jane get a colonoscopy every five years beginning at age 40.

What have we learned from Jane?
When and how often you get a colonoscopy depends not only on your family history of colorectal cancer but also on your family history of precancerous polyps. Keep track of your family’s medical history. Here’s how to start.

  1. Ask your parents if they have had a colonoscopy.
    • If they say no, encourage them to get one.
  2. Ask them if their doctor found polyps, if they had a colonoscopy.
    • If they say yes, ask what were the type, size and number.
    • If they don’t know, encourage them to call their doctor’s office to get this information.
  3. Share the information you gathered with your doctor at your next wellness exam.

READ ALSO: Colon screening: Colonoscopy vs. virtual colonoscopy

Brian has inflammatory bowel disease
man with inflammatory bowel diseaseBrian is 45 years old. He’s had Crohn’s disease, a type of inflammatory bowel disease, for the past five years. Because Brian has this disease, MD Anderson recommends that he get a colonoscopy every one to two years beginning 12 to 15 years after diagnosis.

MD Anderson also recommends that Brian’s doctor take tissue samples from his colon during each colonoscopy. The doctor will use these samples to check for abnormal cells that might become cancer.

What have we learned from Brian?
Having an inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s disease or chronic ulcerative colitis, increases your chances of getting colorectal cancer. This means you will need to get colonoscopies more often than normal. Having irritable bowel syndrome, however, does not increase your chances of getting colorectal cancer.

Get your personalized screening plan
If any of these patient stories sounds like you, you may be at increased or high risk for colorectal cancer. This means you may need a more tailored screening plan to test for the disease. See MD Anderson-recommended screening guidelines for people at increased risk or high risk for colorectal cancer.

Remember, having one or more risks for colorectal cancer does not mean you definitely will get the disease. It means that you may be more likely to get colorectal cancer. Finding colorectal cancer early can save lives.

If you don’t fit the description of any of the women and men above, you may be at average risk for colorectal cancer. See MD Anderson’s screening recommendations for people at average risk.

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