March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month.

Colorectal cancer is highly treatable if found early.
In its earliest stages colon cancer has no symptoms Screening and early detection are key to successful treatment.

If you’re over age 50 there’s no excuse not to get a colonoscopy. This safe and painless procedure takes about 30 to 60 minutes and is used to detect early signs of colorectal cancer, the third most common cancer among men and women in the United States.

What is colorectal cancer?

Colorectal cancer is the term for cancer that begins in the colon (large intestine) or rectum. Most colorectal cancers start as a polyp, a growth that protrudes from the lining of the colon or rectum. While most polyps are benign, some develop into cancerous growths called adenomas. About 95 percent of all colon and rectal cancers are adenocarcinomas.

In its earliest stages colorectal cancer is symptom-free. However as the disease progresses a person may experience a change in bowel habits (diarrhea or constipation), rectal bleeding or blood in the stool, cramping or stomach pain, weakness or fatigue, and unexplained weight loss. If you’ve recently experienced any of these symptoms contact your doctor right away.

Finding and removing polyps before they become cancer is the key to preventing deaths from colorectal cancer.

How many people get colorectal cancer?

Colorectal cancer affects about 1 in 20 adults. According to the American Cancer Society, this year alone:

  • Nearly 97,000 people will be diagnosed with colon cancer
  • About 40,000 people will be diagnosed with rectal cancer
  • More than 30,000 people will die from either colon or rectal cancer

The good news is, the death rates from colorectal cancer have been steadily decreasing over the last 20 years. This is largely because there are fewer cases, thanks to increased public awareness of the disease and the need for early screening.

The bad news is that far too many people are still dying from colorectal cancer. Thousands of deaths from colorectal cancers could be prevented with early detection and healthy lifestyle changes.

What are the risk factors?

No one knows the exact cause of colorectal cancer, but there are certain known risk factors. Some, like age are beyond your control. But others, like diet and exercise, can be controlled.

Risk factors you can’t control:

  • Age fifty or above
  • History of colorectal cancer or certain kinds of polyps
  • History of ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease
  • Family history of colorectal cancer
  • Race or ethnic background
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Certain family syndromes, such as familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) or hereditary non-polyposis colon cancer (HNPCC, or Lynch syndrome).
Diet high in processed and grilled red meats have been linked with higher colorecal cancer risk.
Diet high in processed and grilled red meats have been linked with higher colorecal cancer risk.

Risk related to your lifestyle:

  • Consumption of red and processed meats. Diets high in red meats, processed (hot dogs, bologna, etc.) meats or meats cooked at high temperatures (frying, grilling, etc.). These types of meats may contain cancer-causing chemicals such as HCAs (produced in meat cooked at high temperatures) and nitrates (found in processed meats).
  • Other dietary factors. Studies suggest that diets high in fat (especially animal fat) and low in calcium, folate, and fiber may increase the risk of colorectal cancer. The National Cancer Institute recommends a low-fat diet that includes plenty of fiber and at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
  • Lack of exercise and obesity. Physical inactivity and obesity have been linked with a number of cancers including colorectal cancer. One theory is that obese people have higher circulating levels of insulin-like growth factor, which may promote the growth and proliferation of cancer cells. The American Cancer Society recommends exercising five or more days a week for at least 30 minutes a day.
  • Smoking and heavy alcohol use.Smoking and heavy alcohol use have been linked with colorectal cancers and other cancers. One theory regarding alcohol use is that bacteria in the colon and rectum may convert alcohol into acetaldehyde, a toxic chemical and carcinogen. A systematic review and meta-analysis of thirty-six scientific studies conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health found a “significant” association between daily cigarette consumption and colorectal cancer, especially rectal cancer.

Keep in mind that having certain risk factors does not you’ll automatically develop colorectal cancer. Conversely, the absence of risk factors is not a guarantee that you won’t develop colorectal cancer.

Colorectal cancer affects men and women equally. Talk with you Graybill doctor about your individual risk factors.
Colorectal cancer affects men and women equally. Talk with you Graybill doctor about your individual risk factors.

Screening for colorectal cancerIt’s generally recommended that both men and women get a colonoscopy beginning at age 50 and every 10 years thereafter (or sooner if certain risk factors are present).

Colonoscopies are one of the most common screening tools for colorectal cancer. Blood tests, stool tests, imaging (CT scans, ultrasound, X-ray) can also be used to detect abnormalities, but a colonoscopy and biopsy are ultimately needed to positively diagnose cancer.

Now is the time to talk with your Graybill doctorIf you’re fifty or above and haven’t had your first colonoscopy, now is the time to talk with your Graybill doctor about getting one. Given its prevalence and the high success rate of early screening, there’s no excuse not to undergo this potentially life-saving test.