It may not be dinner-table conversation, but colorectal cancer deserves to be talked about. Chances are you’ll be hearing about it this month because March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. Colorectal cancer affects on average 1 in 22 people. It is one of the most common cancers in the U.S., but it’s also one of the most preventable.
What is colorectal cancer?Colorectal cancer occurs in men and women of all ethnic and racial groups, most often aged 50 or more. Doctors recommend that everyone in this age group should get screened regularly for colorectal cancer. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that screening could prevent 6 of 10 deaths from colorectal cancer.
Colorectal cancers start in the colon or rectum, which make up the lower part of the digestive system. During digestion, the colon absorbs water and nutrients from food and then stores waste matter as stool. Stool moves from the colon into the rectum before it exits the body. Although scientists don’t know exactly what causes colorectal cancers to develop, risk factors include age, obesity, poor diet, smoking and genetic predisposition.
Colorectal cancer often begins as a polyp that forms on the inner wall of the rectum or colon. Over time polyps can become cancerous.
Why screening is importantMany people with polyps or early-stage colorectal cancer have no symptoms. You can have polyps or cancer and not know it. That’s why it’s so important to be screened regularly.
When symptoms do appear, they can vary from person to person, depending on the size and location of the polyps or cancer. Typical symptoms include blood in the stool, changes in stool consistency, changes in bowel habits, unexplained weight loss, abdominal discomfort or cramps that don’t go away.
Even if you have symptoms, it doesn’t mean you have cancer. A variety of non-cancerous conditions can cause these symptoms. If you develop symptoms, talk with a doctor right away.
Whether you have symptoms or not, if you are 50 or older, your doctor will likely recommend that you be screened regularly for colorectal cancer. If you are in a higher risk group for colorectal cancer, ask your doctor how often you should be tested.
Different screening tests include colonoscopy, fecal occult blood test or fecal immunochemical test (FIT), sigmoidoscopy, stool DNA test (FIT-DNA) and CT colonography (virtual colonoscopy). The type of test you have will be determined based on your risk factors and symptoms.
Screening tests can help prevent colorectal cancer by finding polyps before they turn into cancer. The doctor can usually remove polyps easily and completely. Screening can also find cancer at its earliest stages before it spreads and when it is easiest to treat. Treatment options depend on the size and location of cancer cells.
Colorectal cancer will affect 140,000 Americans this year. The good news is that it’s highly preventable and treatable if it’s caught early.
To learn moreThe National Institutes of Health has published statistics and videos on colorectal cancer to help people understand the risks and treatments available.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provide comprehensive information on colorectal cancer and tips for getting screened.
Visit Colon Cancer Alliance for additional resources and support.
Talk to your health care provider about getting screened for colorectal cancer. You can find a Providence provider in our directory.