Colorectal cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in the US. It is also the 3rd leading cause of cancer deaths for both men and women. This doesn’t have to be the case. With proper screening and early detection, colorectal cancer is 90% preventable. It’s important to have a basic understanding of colorectal cancer and its prevention.
How Common is it?
Colorectal cancer occurs in the colon (or large intestine) or rectum, at the end of the digestive system. Colorectal cancer is the third most common type of cancer in men and women in the United States, behind skin and lung cancers. The American Cancer Society estimates that 136,830 diagnoses and 50,310 deaths can be attributed to colorectal cancer in 2014.
The lifetime risk of being diagnosed with colorectal cancer is 1 in 20 (or 5%). The American Cancer Society and Gastroenterology Associates have launched massive awareness campaigns to educate at-risk populations about timely screening to reduce the rates of diagnosis and death from colorectal cancer.
How Does Colorectal Cancer Happen?
Before cancers grow, precancerous polyps develop. These polyps, which lie on the walls of the colon or rectum, aren’t cancerous but have the potential to become cancerous later on. Once cancer starts to develop, it usually develops slowly, over the course of a decade or longer.
Colonoscopy, the most effective and complete screening, has the ability to remove polyps during the procedure and cut the risk of them developing further into colon cancer. Left unchecked, these polyps can become cancer and more difficult to treat.
Who’s at Risk?
Certain groups have a higher risk of colorectal cancer. These groups should receive timely screening and adhere to the recommended screening guidelines. Making lifestyle changes to help lower risks are advisable when modifiable. Risk factors include:
- Age over 50
- African-American ethnicity
- Diet low in fiber and high in fat
- Lack of exercise
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Inflammatory bowel disease, like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
- Family history of colon cancer
- Personal history of colon cancer or polyps
Is it Preventable?
Colorectal cancer is preventable. When polyps are detected early, they can be removed before they become cancerous. In addition, people in high-risk groups can make lifestyle changes, such as eating a healthy diet and exercising.
On top of prevention, colon cancer is most treatable when caught early. If colon cancer is caught in the earliest stages (Stage 1), when it is most easily treated and removed, the prognosis is best – 90% of these cases will survive 5 years or more. As colon cancer spreads, the survival rates decline, making early detection the vital component of survival.
What are the Symptoms?
Patients with colorectal cancer may experiences changes in their bowel habits, discomfort, or blood in the stool. These symptoms are all significant and warrant investigation by a professional. However, the majority of cases are asymptomatic, meaning that colorectal cancer can be progressing without ever producing any symptoms.
Some symptoms of colon cancer can be symptoms of other digestive health issues. For example, blood in the stool may be a symptom of colorectal cancer or hemorrhoids, but neither of these should be left to the individual for diagnosis. An examination by a board-certified gastroenterologist, like the ones at Gastroenterology Associates, will provide concrete answers to the cause of symptoms and a course of action for any treatments.
All About Screening
For most people, screening starts at age 50, but your doctor may recommend earlier, more frequent screening. The colonoscopy is the most effective screening tool, and should be performed every 10 years starting at age 50 (between age 40 and 45 for African Americans and for those with family or personal histories of polyps or colorectal cancer). During a colonoscopy, the doctor can detect and possibly remove any polyps, as well as take a biopsy of any abnormal growths in the colon. A sigmoidoscopy should be performed every 5 years. A fecal occult blood test should be performed each year.