Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month
Did you know that since February 2000, March has been dedicated as National Colorectal Cancer awareness month? Wearing dark blue, patients, providers, survivors, and advocates across the country join to raise awareness for the disease. Although detectable and treatable when caught early, the American Cancer Society states that colorectal cancer is the second most common form of cancer in the United States. What is even more staggering – 1 in 23 men and 1 in 25 women are at risk for developing colorectal cancer in their lifetime. If you are over 45, even if you are in good health, get screened.
What Causes Colorectal Cancer?
Colorectal cancer starts when a polyp develops on the inner lining of the colon or rectum. If the polyp is cancerous, it will grow into the wall of the colon or rectum, which will lead to cancer over time. Although it is possible for anyone to develop colorectal cancer, family history plays a large role. African Americans, Ashkenazi Jews, and Indigenous communities have higher rates of the disease than other races. Also, those with a family history of colon cancer, polyps, inflammatory bowel disease (IBS), Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis, or other pre-existing conditions are at a higher risk.
As well as family history/heritage, there are multiple lifestyle choices that are linked to developing colorectal cancer, including obesity, living a sedentary lifestyle, poor diet, smoking, and heavy alcohol intake. In addition, colorectal cancer is most common in individuals 45 and over. While living a healthier lifestyle may not prevent colorectal cancer altogether, it will dramatically reduce the risk of developing the cancer.
What Are the Signs?
In the early stages, colorectal cancer may develop without showing any signs or symptoms. Once they appear, symptoms include unexplained weight loss, change in bowel habits (constipation or diarrhea), rectal bleeding or blood in your stool, fatigue, and unexplained anemia. Screening generally begins for adults around age 45, but depending on certain risk factors, your provider may recommend you start screening earlier. Contact your medical provider immediately if you are having any of these symptoms.
When it comes to screening, there are two main types of tests: stool-based tests, and visual exams. Each test comes with their own pros and cons, and one may be better for your specific needs then the other. Recently, the American College of Gastroenterology changed their recommendation to start screening at age 45 rather than 50, repeating the test every 10 years. No matter which test you choose, getting tested is the most important thing you can do.
Stool-based tests, such as the popular Cologuard test, look for possible signs of cancer or polyps in the stool. Because they are done in the comfort of your own home, many people find them easier than more invasive tests such as colonoscopy. The downside – stool-based tests need to be repeated every three years (if negative), and a positive test will prompt your provider to refer you for a colonoscopy.
Visual exams, such as a colonoscopy, look at the inside of the colon and rectum to see if there are atypical areas that may be cancer or polyps. Although more invasive, these tests are highly effective. Depending on your needs, your provider may refer one type of test over another. And, as mentioned earlier, all that matters is that you get screened.
Talk to your provider
Bottom line – Talk to your provider about getting screened for colorectal cancer. When screened and detected early, colorectal cancer is preventable and treatable. And just if you are not convinced yet, screening is the number 1 way to detect the disease. As the old adage goes – “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
To learn more about colorectal cancer, click here to view a NVFP town hall event where my colleagues Dr. Cecily Havert and Dr. Ken Zweig interview Dr. Sean Hurley, a gastroenterologist, about colorectal cancer and more.