Colorectal Cancer: A Very Preventable Disease

Although colorectal cancer deaths are declining, it remains the second leading cancer killer in the U.S. But here’s the good news: it’s often preventable. Colorectal cancer is cancer that starts in the colon or the rectum.

Who’s at risk?

Certain risk factors can affect your chance of developing colorectal cancer. Risk factors you can’t change include being older, a family history of colorectal cancer, personal history of polyps or having inflammatory bowel disease or Crohn’s disease. Studies show that African American men are also more likely to develop colorectal cancer.

Risk factors you can change include being overweight, smoking, physical inactivity, eating a diet high in red meats and processed meats and heavy alcohol use.

What are the signs of colorectal cancer?

Most colorectal cancers begin as polyps and as they grow, they often bleed which can cause blood in your stool. Abdominal or rectal pain, changes in stool size, constipation or diarrhea are also symptoms of colorectal cancer. Low red blood cell counts or anemia is another sign of the disease.

Let’s talk screening

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says one in three adults age 50 to 75 years old have not been tested for colorectal cancer. “It’s really a preventable cancer,” says Kiran Khosa, M.D., gastroenterologist with Digestive Disorders Consultants According to Dr. Khosa, people put off colorectal screening because they have no insurance or are underinsured, it requires a day off of work or they don’t want to go through the colon cleansing process.

Physicians recommend colorectal screening starting at age 50. But a father, mother, brother or sister with colon cancer means you should have a screening sooner. Other alternatives to a colonoscopy include:

  • Yearly fecal occult blood tests for people at average risk of developing the disease.
  • CT scan to view your colon.
  • Cologuard, a new test that looks for blood and cancer-related DNA in the stool.
  • Sigmoidoscopy to exam your lower colon. The procedure requires colon cleansing, but omits the sedation.

“The colonoscopy is the gold standard for diagnosing and treating colon cancer,” says Dr. Khosa. “It’s really a two for one.” The procedure requires a laxative prep the day before and light sedation during the examination. The physician views the entire colon using a flexible tube and tiny camera and removes any precancerous polyps before they turn into cancer. A colonoscopy is painless and typically takes 30 to 60 minutes.

March is colorectal cancer month. If you’re 50 or older, talk to your primary care physician about colorectal screening that’s right for you. “We know that seat belts save lives,” says Dr. Khosa. “Well, colorectal screening saves lives too.”

Source: American Cancer Society, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.