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Cancer is one of the most frightening words in our vocabulary. When it strikes you or someone you love, it can be the most devastating news in the world.

Cancer of the colon, with the exception of lung cancer, kills more people than any other form of cancer. Early detection is the key; it is estimated that 90% of all colon cancer cases could have been avoided through early detection screening. Most cases develop from a polyp, a pre-malignant growth on the lining of the colon. Left undetected, the polyp can turn cancerous, usually in five to ten years.

Colon cancer is highly treatable and is often curable when it is localized to the bowel. Here's what you can do:

Ages 40 to 50: A digital rectal exam should be performed by your doctor. The doctor will insert a gloved finger into the rectum and can feel for suspicious growths.

After age 50: A fecal occult blood test (in addition to the digital rectal exam) should be done each year. With this test, you smear stool on a specially treated card for three consecutive days. The doctor will also examine the full length of your colon using a long, flexible viewing scope. This procedure is called a colonoscopy and if a polyp is found during the procedure, it can be removed.

Because most tumors develop in the lower fourth of the colon, there is also another procedure, flexible sigmoidoscopy, available. This type of procedure can be performed every three years and involves a short, flexible
tube being inserted into the rectum.

Who is at high risk? Unfortunately, colon cancer runs in families. Your risk of developing colon cancer is above average if one or more relatives (parents or siblings) have had the disease. If this is the case, it is highly advisable to have the flexible sigmoidoscopy every three to five years, starting at age 35.

There is also a rare hereditary condition called familial adenomatous polyposis (hundreds of polyps in the colon) that drastically raises your risk of colon cancer. If a genetic test reveals that you have this condition, screening should begin in adolescence.

A colonoscopy should be performed every three years if you have had one polyp removed; chances are, you'll develop more. And if you have ulcerative colitis, or Crohn's disease, a colonoscopy should be done annually.

Unfortunately, 90% of colon cancer cases could be avoided through early detection; detection means prevention, and it could save your life.