Do you really know if an increased risk of colon cancer runs in your family?
Odds are, you don’t talk about the results of your parents’ most recent colonoscopy at the dinner table. But, maybe you should. Your risk of colon cancer increases significantly if an immediate family member has been diagnosed with colon cancer or has had advanced polyps removed. And, there are a few genetic conditions, like Lynch Syndrome, that can be passed down generation after generation and increase your risk. A higher risk means you need to get screened earlier and more frequently than the average person.
The good news is, however, that even if you are at an increased risk of colon cancer, early detection can mean early treatment and prevention. Yes, you can prevent colon cancer, even if it runs in your family.
Colon cancer is the third-leading cause of cancer death in the United States and is expected to affect about one in every 20 Americans in their lifetime. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, as many as one-third of colon cancer cases are associated with increased familial risk.
About two to five percent of colon cancers develop from inherited syndromes. These diseases affect both genders and can develop before puberty:
Lynch syndrome, or hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer, is caused by a genetic mutation and accounts for about one in every 12 cases of colon cancer. People affected by Lynch syndrome have increased risk of developing tumors in the colon, as well as the brain, stomach, liver, pancreas, ovaries and uterus.
Lynch syndrome can increase the risk for colon cancer as much as 80 percent, so patients affected by the disease must schedule annual colonoscopies. Without careful management and monitoring, nearly one-third of patients with Lynch syndrome will develop colon cancer by age 70.
Familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) is an inherited syndrome that causes the colon to form hundreds or thousands of polyps. On average, people with FAP begin developing colon tumors in their mid-teenage years and have multiple growths by age 35. FAP can also increase the risk for other cancers of the small intestine, stomach, pancreas, biliary tree and liver.
Because FAP causes colon polyps to develop so quickly, the only effective treatment for the disease is partial or complete colon removal. While this treatment may seem drastic, surgical removal of the colon will prevent colon cancer from forming.
Talking about genetic predisposition can increase awareness among family members. When you and your doctor are aware of your family health history, you can look for warning signs and indicators of disease. If you have a family history of colon cancer, Lynch syndrome or FAP, talk to your doctor about early screening or genetic testing.
Having a first-degree relative with colon cancer significantly increases your risk of developing the disease, so you need to begin screening at a younger age. Average risk adults should start colon screening at age 45. However, if a family member has had colon cancer, you should be tested ten years earlier than the age they were at the time of their diagnosis. Your doctor will advise you as to when you should get a baseline colonoscopy or other type of colon cancer screening.
Genetic testing can be a helpful tool for families. It can facilitate early intervention and enhance the quality of life for those who were unaware of a genetic disease. Schedule regular visits with your primary care physician and gastroenterologist so you can make the best decisions for your family.
Ninety-six percent of Americans think family health history is essential, but only 30 percent have actually exchanged health information with family members. Be bold in talking about inherited conditions like colon cancer with your family. Your efforts could help save the life of a loved one.
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