Messner was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1996. She died peacefully at her home near Kansas City, Mo., on July 21, according to her manager, Joe Spotts.
The American Cancer Society estimates that nearly 154,000 people will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer -- cancer of either the colon or rectum -- in 2007. More than 52,000 people are expected to die from the condition. Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S.
Fortunately, the death rate from colorectal cancer has been going down for the past 15 years because of better detection and treatment, according to the American Cancer Society.
Colon Cancer Detection
Though colon cancer testing isn’t foolproof, it’s one of the most effective ways to help fight colon cancer. When colon cancer is found earlier, it’s much easier to treat and cure.
Since the risk of colon cancer rises significantly after age 50, everyone at that age should have one of the following colon cancer detection tests. People at high-risk for colon cancer, such as those with a family history, may need to start colon cancer screening at an earlier age.
There are several available colon cancer detection methods. Which test is right for you depends on several factors, including whether you have symptoms of colon cancer, if you’re a high risk for colon cancer, such as a family history, and the test that your doctor feels is best for you.
Tests for colon cancer detection include:
- Stool Blood Test: A stool sample is tested for very small amounts of blood. If blood is found, further testing, usually with a colonoscopy, may be needed to look for colon cancer. Blood in the stool can be caused by noncancerous conditions as well. This test is done annually.
- Flexible Sigmoidoscopy: Using a flexible tube with a camera and light on the end, the doctor inserts the tube into the rectum to visualize the lower part of the colon. The disadvantage of this test is that the doctor cannot see the entire colon. Therefore, some cases of colon cancer could be missed. This test is done every 5 years and is often combined with yearly stool blood tests.
- Barium Enema: A chalky substance containing barium is allowed to flow into the colon. This allows better X-rays to be taken to look for suspicious signs of colon cancer. Some air may be pumped in to expand the colon. This test is done every 5 years.
- Colonoscopy: This is essentially a more thorough version of the sigmoidoscopy. The advantage is that the entire length of the colon can be seen, which helps improve colon cancer detection. If there are no abnormal findings from the colonoscopy, most people do not need to have another one for 10 years. If any abnormal findings are seen in any of the tests above, a colonoscopy is usually required to get a better look and possibly do a biopsy to look for colon cancer.
- Virtual Colonoscopy: This is a specialized CT scan. While this may sound like a much better option than a colonoscopy, experts are not convinced that it’s as good at detecting colon cancer. More tests are needed before it’s considered ready for widespread use.
Colon Cancer Symptoms
In its early stage, colon cancer usually produces no symptoms. The most likely warning signs include:
- Changes in bowel movements, including persistent constipation or diarrhea, a feeling of not being able to empty the bowel completely, or rectal bleeding
- Dark patches of blood in or on stool; or long, thin, "pencil stools”
- Abdominal discomfort or bloating
Call your doctor if:
- You notice a change in your bowel movements, experience bleeding from the rectum, or notice blood in or on your stool. Don't assume you have hemorrhoids; your doctor will most likely perform a rectal examination and possibly a sigmoidoscopy or schedule a colonoscopy.
- You experience persistent abdominal pain, unusual weight loss, or fatigue. These symptoms may be due to other causes, but they could also be linked to cancer.
- You are diagnosed with anemia. In determining its cause, your doctor should check for bleeding in the digestive tract because of colorectal cancer.
Colon Cancer Prevention
In some people it is clear why they developed colorectal cancer: They inherited it. But in most people, there is no identifiable cause. Without a known cause, preventing colon cancer is a tricky business. Even the person who does everything right may still get colon cancer but taking the following steps will significantly improve your chances.
- High-Fiber, Low-Fat Diet: The National Cancer Institute recommends a low-fat, high-fiber diet that includes at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables each day. Major sources of fat are meat, eggs, full-fat dairy products, and oils used in cooking and salad dressings. To increase the amount of fiber in your diet, eat more vegetables, fruits, and whole-grain breads and cereals.
- Screening: One or more of the colon cancer detection methods described above can help find precancerous signs of colon cancer that can be treated before they turn into cancer. Finding colon cancer earlier with one of these tests also significantly increases the likelihood that it can be cured.