March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month so it's a great time to learn more about this deadly, but often preventable and treatable type of cancer. According to the Colon Cancer Alliance, colon cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer and the second leading cause of cancer death in men and women combined in the United States.
The American Cancer Society estimates that 136,830 people will be diagnosed with colon cancer and 50,310 will die from the condition in 2017. Those are sobering statistics, but it is important to note that there are currently over 1 million colorectal cancer survivors in the United States. Colorectal cancer can be beaten, especially if it's caught early!
What is Colorectal Cancer?
Colorectal cancer is cancer that develops in the colon (the large intestine) or the rectum (the passageway that connects the large intestine to the anus). These cancers generally begin as polyps, which are abnormal growths that can become cancerous if they are not removed.
- Age - Although younger people can definitely be affected, colorectal cancer is still largely a cancer that targets older adults. 90% of people with colorectal cancer are diagnosed after age 50 and the average age at the time of diagnosis is 72.
- Family history of polyps - If a family member has had polyps in the colon or rectum, you are at an increased risk for developing polyps and should be screened more often.
- Family history of colorectal cancer - If you have a first-degree relative (parent, sibling, or child) with colorectal cancer, you are more likely to develop the disease.
- Hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (HNPCC) - Also known as Lynch Syndrome, HNPCC is the most common inherited colon cancer. Most people with an altered HNPCC gene develop colon cancer at some point, and the average age at diagnosis is 44.
- Familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) - People with an altered APC gene develop this inherited condition that leads to the development of hundreds of polyps in the colon. If left untreated, FAP leads to cancer, generally by age 40.
- Ulcerative colitis or Crohn's Disease - If you have one of these conditions that cause inflammation in the colon, your risk of developing colon cancer is increased.
- Diet - Some studies indicate that diets high in red meat and fat and low in calcium, folate, and fiber may increase the risk of developing colorectal cancer.
- Lifestyle - People who are inactive or obese are more likely to develop colon cancer. In fact, some studies show that daily exercise can decrease the risk of developing colon cancer by as much as 50%!
- Cigarette smoking - Smoking can increase your risk of developing polyps and ultimately cancer.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the signs and symptoms of colon cancer include:
- A change in bowel habits, including diarrhea or constipation or a change in the consistency of stool that lasts longer than four weeks
- Rectal bleeding or blood in your stool
- Persistent abdominal discomfort, such as cramps, gas, or pain
- A feeling that your bowel doesn't empty completely
- Weakness or fatigue
- Unexplained weight loss
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, consult your doctor right away. Early detection is crucial for successful treatment!
Prevention and Screening
To reduce your risk of developing colorectal cancer, it is important to live a healthy lifestyle. Eating a balanced diet, getting regular exercise, avoiding tobacco, and knowing your family history are all important steps in colorectal cancer prevention.
Since colorectal cancer starts as a slow-growing, small growth, it can take a long time for symptoms to arise. Therefore, regular colorectal cancer screenings also play a huge role in prevention and early detection. Screening, or checking for a disease before symptoms are apparent, can catch colorectal cancer at its earliest stages - before symptoms have even manifested - when treatment is most effective.
Colonoscopies are the most common screenings for colorectal cancer. In general, adults should begin having colonoscopies at age 50 to screen for colorectal cancer. People with a family history of colorectal cancer should start screenings at age 40. Colonoscopies should be repeated every 5-10 years, depending on the findings during the initial screening. Other testing and screening methods are available, so talk to your doctor to determine which method is right for you.
This month, make your health a priority and show your colon some love. Take steps to improve your lifestyle and talk to your doctor about colorectal cancer screening today!