Each year in the United States, nearly 150,000 people are diagnosed with colorectal cancer, and over 50,000 die from the disease. It is the second leading cause of cancer death, but there are effective ways to prevent the disease or to reduce its impact.
What, Exactly, is Colorectal Cancer?
The colon and rectum connect the upper part of the digestive tract to the anal canal. They are responsible for allowing waste to pass through the body and for absorbing water and some other nutrients. Colorectal cancer occurs when malignant (cancer) cells grow in the colon or rectum. Unchecked, the cells can grow into tumors within the colon or rectum. Such a tumor can bleed, causing anemia, or even block the colon and cause obstruction – a dangerous complication of the disease.
The malignant cells can also spread to the lymph nodes, or to other parts of the body, causing “metastatic” cancer. Common sites of metastatic colorectal cancer include the lungs, liver, and ovaries. Once the cancer has spread beyond the colon or rectum, survival rates begin to decrease.
Who Gets Colorectal Cancer?
In the United States, colorectal cancer is the third most common cause of cancer for both men and women. Over four percent of men and women will be diagnosed with the disease in their lifetime.
The risk for colorectal cancer increases with age. While most cases occur in individuals over the age of 65, there is a big jump in incidence after age 45. Other risk factors include:
- Family history of colorectal cancer
- Certain genetic disorders
- Personal history of certain cancers, high-risk adenomas, ulcerative colitis, or Crohn disease
- African American race
- Consuming more than three alcoholic drinks a day.
How Would I Know If I Have Colorectal Cancer?
In the early stages, there may be no signs or symptoms of the disease. However, as the disease progresses, symptoms increase and become more obvious.
These may include:
- A change in bowel habits, diarrhea, constipation, a feeling that you cannot empty the bowel completely, or narrow stools
- Blood in the stool
- Gas or bloating
- Weight loss for no obvious reason
- Feeling unusually tired
Any of these symptoms that persist is reason to visit your doctor for an evaluation.
Can I Prevent Colorectal Cancer?
Colorectal cancer can often be prevented, or at least caught early enough to prevent more severe disease from developing. This is achieved through screening tests. In fact, when colorectal cancer is diagnosed while it is still localized to the colon or rectum, the five-year survival is over 90 percent. It drops to a frightening 14 percent if it is not discovered until it has spread to distant sites in the body.
The American College of Gastroenterology recommends screening colonoscopy beginning at age 50 (45 for African Americans) and every ten years thereafter in order to find most cancers while they are still localized. Those with other risk factors may need to follow a different schedule. Following the recommendations for screening colonoscopy reduces the death rate from colorectal cancer by 60 to 70 percent.
The facts of colorectal cancer can be frightening to hear. But we all have a great tool to reduce our risk of the disease. If you are over 45 or have other risk factors for the disease, talk to your physician about the right screening schedule for you.