This February lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate introduced resolutions designating March National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month and with good reason… with the exception of skin cancers, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the U.S.
• The American Cancer Society estimates there will be more than 142,000 new colorectal cancer cases diagnosed in the nation this year.
• It is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths when men and women are considered separately, and the second leading cause when both sexes are combined.
• It is expected to cause about 50,830 deaths during 2013.
• Annually, medical expenditures related to colorectal cancer costs about $14 billion.
Fortunately, the death rate from colorectal cancer has been dropping in both men and women for more than 20 years. There are a number of likely reasons for this. One is that polyps are being found by screening and removed before they can develop into cancers. Screening is also allowing more colorectal cancers to be found earlier when the disease is easier to cure. In addition, treatment for colorectal cancer has improved over the last several years. As a result, there are now more than 1 million survivors of colorectal cancer in the United States.
Are you at risk of developing colorectal cancer?
We don’t know the exact cause of colorectal cancer, but there are some common factors that point to an increased risk of developing the disease.
Age. A person’s risk increases with age. The disease is most common in people over the age of 50, and the chance of getting colorectal cancer increases with each decade. However, colorectal cancer can develop in younger people.
Gender. The risk overall is equal, but women have a higher risk for colon cancer, while men are more likely to develop rectal cancer.
Polyps. Polyps are non-cancerous growths on the inner wall of the colon or rectum. While they are fairly common in people over 50, one type of polyp, referred to as an adenoma (a non-cancerous precursor to cancerous a polyp), increases the risk of developing colorectal cancer.
Personal history. Research shows that women who have a history of ovarian, uterine, or breast cancer have a somewhat higher risk of developing colorectal cancer. A person who already has had colorectal cancer may develop the disease a second time, especially if the first disease was diagnosed before the age of 60. In addition, people who have chronic inflammatory conditions of the colon, such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, are at higher risk of developing colorectal cancer.
Family history. Parents, siblings, and children of a person who has had colorectal cancer are more likely to develop colorectal cancer themselves. If two or more family members have had colorectal cancer, the risk increases to about 20%.
Diet. A diet high in fat and cholesterol and low in fiber has been linked to a greater risk of developing colorectal cancer.
Lifestyle factors. You may be at increased risk if you drink alcohol, smoke, don’t get enough exercise, and if you are overweight.
Diabetes. People with diabetes have a 30% to 40% increased risk of developing colon cancer.
Race. The highest incidence of colorectal cancer is in African-American men and women. The incidence of colorectal cancers is lowest in Asian-Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, and American Indians and native Alaskans
Geography. The incidence of colorectal cancer is highest in industrialized nations and lowest in Asia, Africa, and South America.
Having one or more of these risk factors does not guarantee that you will develop colorectal cancer. However, you should talk about your risk factors with your doctor. He or she may be able to suggest ways to reduce your chances of developing colorectal cancer.
How can colorectal cancer be prevented?
Along with regular screening, healthy lifestyle choices are the best current preventive measures against colorectal cancer. Here’s how you can help reduce your risk:
• Eat more foods that are high in fiber, whole grains, fruits, vegetables.
• Eat more cruciferous vegetables cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts.
• Increase calcium intake from low-fat milk, shellfish, salmon, calcium supplements with vitamin D.
• Decrease fats oils, butter, red meats.
• Limit your intake of charcoal broiled foods and avoid salt-cured foods.
• Exercise regularly.
• Consider taking low daily doses of aspirin or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (it is important to discuss with your doctor first).
What are the symptoms of colorectal cancer?
Colorectal cancer may begin with no symptoms at all. However, over time, there are a number of warning signs that can occur such as:
1. Rectal bleeding.
2. Blood in your stool (bright red, black or very dark).
3. A temporary change in your bowel movements, especially in the shape of the stool (e.g., narrow like a pencil).
4. Discomfort in having a bowel movement or the urge to move your bowels when there is no need.
5. Cramping pain in your lower abdomen.
6. Frequent gas pains.
7. Weight loss without dieting.
8. Constant fatigue.
What you should know about colorectal cancer screening.
Regular colon screening is important because it can prevent cancer or find it early when it is easier to treat. The American Cancer Society recommends colon cancer screening (there are several acceptable methods) for everyone starting at age 50, though some people may need to start at a younger age. Talk to your physician about which form of cancer screening and at what age is appropriate for you based on your risk factors and medical history.
If cost has been a major consideration for you to make the decision to schedule a colonoscopy or other important screening procedure, check with your insurance provider. Under the Affordable Care Act, screening colonoscopies are now fully covered by Medicare and by many private insurers. Patients will still be responsible for co-insurance or some out-of-pocket costs if the colonoscopy is a diagnostic rather than screening procedure. Patients may also still be responsible for costs related to anesthesia.
Selecting a physician to provide your colorectal screening.
Consider a physician board certified in Gastroenterology. These individuals have accumulated at least six years of training after medical school. The gastroenterology training experience is far more intense than that undertaken by general surgeons, internists, or family practitioners. Gastroenterologists are trained to interpret and treat the conditions they identify and follow the latest protocols.
The most important fact to remember about colorectal cancer is that it is preventable, treatable and beatable. Know your risk factors, watch for symptoms, follow screening guidelines and where possible make dietary and lifestyle changes that can reduce your risk. While colorectal cancer is one of the deadliest cancers, remember…it doesn’t have to be.
For more about colorectal cancer visit www.gastro.org/patient-center/digestive-conditions/colorectal-cancer.