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March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month

Colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of death from cancer in the United States.

closeup of cancer cell

Colorectal cancer is also one of the most preventable types of cancer. When colon or rectal cancer—collectively referred to as colorectal cancer—is caught in its early stages, the survival rate is very high.

“The mortality rate from colorectal cancer has been decreasing over the past couple of decades,” says Alice Friedman, M.D., a gastroenterologist with ADC. “Treatment has been improving over that time, and maybe more importantly, screening allows more of these types of cancers to be discovered, and to be discovered in their earlier stages.”

What is colorectal cancer?

Colon cancer is cancer that develops in the large intestine, or colon. Rectal cancer is cancer that develops in the rectum.

“Usually, colorectal cancers begin as non-cancerous growths called polyps, though not all polyps will develop into cancer. The screening tests for colon cancer can detect polyps and allow your doctor to remove them before they can become cancerous,” says Dr. Friedman. “This is what makes colorectal cancer among the most preventable types of cancer.”

Who develops colon cancer?

Though young people can develop colon cancer, the majority of people diagnosed with colorectal cancers are over age 50. A variety of risk factors, including age, may increase your individual risk for colorectal cancer.

  • Personal history of polyps or colorectal cancer. If you have had colorectal cancer, you are more likely to develop it again in other areas of the colon.
  • Family history of colorectal cancer. People with a history of colorectal cancer in their first-degree relatives have an increased risk of cancer.
  • Other health problems. Your risk for colorectal cancer can be higher if you have a history of certain syndromes that are linked to colorectal cancer, including Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, or Lynch syndrome.
  • Ethnic background. In the U.S., African Americans have the highest rate of colon and rectal cancers.
  • Sedentary lifestyle. Inactive people are more likely to develop these types of cancer.
  • Diet. Colorectal cancers may be associated with a diet low in fiber and high in fat, though studies have not conclusively determined why that may be.
  • Obesity. People who are obese have a higher incidence of these cancers, as well as a higher mortality rate.
  • Radiation treatment. Pelvic radiation for uterine or prostate cancer may increase the risk of rectal cancers.

What can you do to prevent colorectal cancer?

The American Cancer Society advises people to begin regular colorectal screening at age 50, and earlier if you are at higher risk for colorectal cancer. You should discuss your family history and individual risk with your doctor and decide what prevention plan is right for you.

A colonoscopy is the test doctors most often recommend, as it allows doctors to examine the entire colon, but there are some other tests that also are used in colon cancer screening. Some of the more common types include:

  • Colonoscopy. In this procedure, the rectum and entire colon are examined for polyps or abnormal tissue or bleeding.
  • Fecal occult blood test (FOBT). This test checks for blood in the stool that may be a symptom of cancer.
  • Sigmoidoscopy. In this test, the rectum and the lower colon are examined for abnormalities.
  • Virtual colonoscopy. During this test, special equipment is used to take x-rays of the colon and rectum to detect cancer or polyps.
  • Double contrast barium enema. The patient is given an enema that contains barium, which makes the colon and rectum easier to see on x-rays.

Doctors agree that there are lifestyle changes that can help reduce your risk of colorectal cancers. Eating a diet high in soluble fiber that contains plenty of different fruits, vegetables, and whole grains may help to prevent cancer.

“Don’t smoke, limit your alcohol intake, and make sure to stay physically active,” advises Dr. Friedman. “The types of things that keep you healthy overall can help you lower your risk for many medical conditions and diseases, including colorectal cancer.”

Many people avoid being screened for colorectal cancer because they are afraid the test will be uncomfortable, or they are afraid of what doctors may find.

“Colorectal cancer is treatable if you find it in its early stages,” says Dr. Friedman. “I want to encourage people to have a colonoscopy performed regularly, so that you will have more treatment options and a much higher chance of successful treatment if cancer is found. Millions of people have colonoscopies every year. It’s a relatively simple outpatient procedure, and it could save your life.

Alice Friedman, M.D., is a gastroenterologist at the ADC Main Clinic, 12221 MoPac Expressway North.