8 common myths about colon cancer

UT Southwestern seeks to educate people and correct misconceptions about colon cancer.
Regular colonoscopies allow physicians to detect polyps in your colon. Every person over 50 should schedule a regular colonoscopy. 

We hear misconceptions about colon cancer every day. One of them is that women don’t need to get colonoscopies.

That’s not true, and we have real-life proof. One of our most memorable patients was a woman in her 30s. She worked in marketing and was training for a marathon when she noticed some blood in her stool. She didn’t think a whole lot about it, but a month later she did the right thing and got a colonoscopy.

Within days, she was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. Her life was turned upside down. Using a common surgical procedure, we removed the cancer from her colon and part of her liver. It’s been nearly 5 years now, and she’s doing great.

As a medical community, we have a long way to go in educating people and correcting misconceptions about colon cancer. Here are some of the most common myths we’ve heard:

Myth: If I have colon cancer, I’m going to need extensive treatment over a long period of time.

Fact: Getting any kind of cancer diagnosis is frightening, but a majority of patients diagnosed with colon cancer have a solvable problem. Many colon cancers can be treated with a relatively common surgical procedure that is performed using an incision no larger than 3 inches.

Myth: Most of the time, when you are diagnosed with colon cancer, it is already spreading to other parts of your body.

Fact: This is simply not true. The majority of patients diagnosed with colon cancer can be treated and will go on to live normal lives. The earlier we identify the lesion, the less likely the tumor will have spread to other parts of your body. Once a cancer is diagnosed, cancer experts will perform some simple tests to define if the tumor has spread and determine the next treatment steps.

Myth: If my colon cancer has spread, I probably won’t live very long. My cancer will never be cured.

Fact: More treatment options are available than ever before. Colon cancer is unique in that we have the tools to identify it at an early stage. Chemotherapy treatments have improved over time. There are more treatment options now when the cancer is at a more advanced stage, too. In the 1990s, the overall survival rates for stage 4 colon cancer was around 6 to 8 months. Now it’s close to 30 months.

Myth: Colonoscopies are the only way to detect colon cancer.

Fact: Although a colonoscopy is the most accurate screening method for colon cancer, there are other approved methods that can detect cancer or cancerous polyps. Colon cancer often results in blood loss, so one alternative is called a fecal immunochemical test (FIT). The patient can do the test at home by collecting a stool sample and sending it to a lab. It doesn’t take very long to get the results of the test.

Another approved test is the computer tomographic (CT) colonography, also called a “virtual colonoscopy.” Using this technology, a doctor gets an image of the colon and can identify tumors or polyps.

Myth: Because I’m a woman, I don’t need a colonoscopy.

Fact: See our example above. Anyone over age 50 – male or female – should get a colonoscopy every 10 years. If you have had a close relative diagnosed with colon cancer, you should talk to your doctor about having colonoscopies earlier in life.

Myth: I don’t need a colonoscopy because I’m not having any symptoms.

Fact: Many people are diagnosed with colon cancer when they are feeling just fine. People don’t think they can have colon cancer if they feel OK, but they most certainly can. If you’re over 50 and putting off a colonoscopy because you don’t have symptoms, you’re defeating the purpose of the colonoscopy.

Myth: Getting a colonoscopy will be a horrible experience, and it probably won’t find anything anyway.

Fact: Our patients are usually very relieved after a colonoscopy. Most are cancer-free and don’t have to worry about colon cancer for the next 10 years.

The actual procedure takes about 30 minutes. Due to the sedation, most patients don’t even remember it. Although the sedation means someone has to drive you home, you likely won’t have to take more than a day off from work.

The part that generates the most complaints from patients is the process the day before the colonoscopy. The patient has to drink a product to cleanse the colon, which results in several bowel movements. After the procedure, patients can experience some extra gas or a bloated feeling for a couple days.

Myth: I’m older than 50, but my family doctor didn’t say I should get a colonoscopy, so I must not need one.

Fact: This is one of the most common reasons people give when they haven’t had a colonoscopy but should. They expect their family doctor to remember. Rather than think about it that way, we recommend being proactive. Take control of your health and ask questions.

Colon cancer is preventable, treatable, and beatable. It’s important to educate yourself, especially if you’re over 50. For more questions, request an appointment online or call our Cancer Answer Line at 214-736-9022.

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