It used to be that colonoscopies for people at average risk of getting colon cancer began at age 50. But with new data accrued over recent years, The American Cancer Society now recommends first-time screenings begin at age 45.

Dr. Arnold Baskies, former chairman of the board at The American Cancer Society said screening at an earlier age would pick up more disease.

"We noticed that there were younger people developing colorectal cancer. Why that's occurring, we do not know but what we do know is that by reducing the age that we recommend screening to begin, that we would benefit more people than we would if we began screening at age 50," he said.

The rate at which people are diagnosed with colorectal cancer in the U.S. is dropping among people 65 and older but rising in younger age groups, according to research from the ACS.

Prevention at earlier age

Baskies said the data shows that people in the Medicare age group are doing well when it comes to colon cancer screenings. But because more disease is being picked up in earlier stages, the survival rates are improving in the older age groups.

Regular colorectal cancer screening is one of the most powerful weapons against colorectal cancer. Baskies said a colonoscopy is not only a screening test but it potentially could be a preventative test.

If a colon cancer begins as a benign polyp and that polyp is discovered and removed, then that benign polyp that could have become malignant is eradicated.

"By screening, you can not only find colon cancers but you can find something that pre-dates the colon cancer," Baskies said.

What are the symptoms of cancer?

It is important to get screened even if a person does not have any symptoms. Colorectal cancer might not cause symptoms right away. Many people with early-stage colorectal cancer have it and don't know it.

But common symptoms of colon cancer do include a change in bowel habits, change in stool formation, bleeding, and weight loss.

In New Jersey, an estimated 4,250 new cases of colorectal cancer will be diagnosed this year, according to The American Cancer Society. Baskies added that about 1000 New Jerseyans a year die of colon cancer. But mortality rates have dropped in colorectal cancer.

It's not clear why that is, Baskies said. He'd like to think it was solely because of colon cancer screenings but it's not. It could also be due to changes in risk factors like declines in smoking and better treatments available. But death rates are increasing in adults younger than 55 because of increasing incidence.

Family cancer history is important

Baskies said it's important to know your family history before colon cancer screenings. While screening is recommended starting at age 45 for average-risk patients, others may be at higher risk due to a family history of colorectal cancer, and therefore should be screened earlier than age 45.

The intervals in between screenings are based on what the findings are at the previous colonoscopy and family history. Some people may not need another colonoscopy for three years or five years depending on the findings, while others may not have to get a colonoscopy for 10 years.

While several types of tests can be used to screen for colorectal cancer, the most important thing is to get screened, no matter which test is chosen. Most health plans cover colorectal cancer screening tests, too.

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