The American Cancer Society estimates more than 150,000 new cases of colorectal cancer will be diagnosed in 2011. It is second only to lung cancer as the cause of cancer deaths in men and women combined.
“The death rate from colorectal cancer has consistently dropped in recent years due to improved screening and advances in treatment,” explains Gary Griglione, MD, gastroenterologist at the Meriter Digestive Health Center. “However, it is still expected to cause nearly 50,000 deaths this year. Preventive screening is imperative in the fight against colorectal cancer.”
If cancer is detected at the time of screening, it is highly curable if found early. The 5-year survival rate is nearly 90 percent for early stage colorectal cancers. Unfortunately, statistics show that 4 out of 10 people with colorectal cancer found at their initial screening exam have advanced cancer.
“Colorectal cancer develops slowly over several years. Before cancer develops there are usually precancerous growths called polyps. In many instances cancer can be avoided entirely if screenings are done at the recommended age. If precancerous polyps are detected at that time, they can be removed and not allowed to develop into colorectal cancer,” explains Griglione.
More than 90 percent of all colorectal cancers are found in people who are age 50 and older. For that reason, the American Cancer Society recommends that both men and women begin preventive screenings at age 50. The American College of Gastroenterology recommends African-Americans, who have an increased risk of colon cancer, begin screening at age 45. In addition, people at a higher risk for colorectal cancer, such as those who have a family history of colon or rectal cancer, may need to begin testing at a younger age.
People with any of the risk factors below should talk with their primary care provider to determine the appropriate age to begin screening:
- Family history of colorectal cancer or adenomatous polyps, in a parent or sibling before the age of 60 or in two first-degree relatives (parent, sibling, child) of any age
- Family with hereditary colorectal cancer syndromes, such as familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) and hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (HNPCC)
- Personal history of colorectal cancer or adenomatous polyps
- Personal history of chronic inflammatory bowel disease
“Many people with colon cancer experience no symptoms in the early stages,” says Susan Lepinski, MD, Meriter Digestive Health Center gastroenterologist. “This is why it is crucial for everyone to be screened early. When symptoms appear, they will vary depending on the size and location of the cancer – cancer which may have been prevented if the individual had been screened.”
Signs and symptoms of colon cancer include:
- A change in bowel habits, including diarrhea or constipation or a change in the consistency of your stool for more than a couple of weeks
- Rectal bleeding or blood in your stool
- Persistent abdominal discomfort, such as cramps, gas or pain
- Feeling that your bowel doesn’t completely empty
- Weakness or fatigue
- Unexplained weight loss
Reduce Your Risk
Scheduling your preventive screening colonoscopy to detect and treat polyps is the best defense against colorectal cancer. You should also take the following steps to achieve a healthy lifestyle and reduce your risk:
- Get to and maintain a healthy weight
- Be physically active
- Eat a diet with a lot of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and less red or processed meat
- Limit the amount of alcohol you consume
- Don’t use any form of tobacco
As a result of increased awareness, there are now more than 1 million colorectal cancer survivors in the United States. But we must continue these efforts to increase the number of preventive screenings, and thereby, colorectal cancer cases prevented.