According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), colorectal cancer is the second most common form of cancer-related deaths in the United States. This year, it is estimated that there will be 147,950 diagnosed cases of colorectal cancer while 53,200 of those cases will result in death. In the five counties that HealthLinc serves, on average each year, 2,788 people are diagnosed and about 1,030 die from this disease.
Like any form of cancer, colorectal cancer sounds scary and the numbers are even scarier. Always remember, the most important tool at your disposal is knowledge and early detection gives you the greatest chance of survival. Take the fear out of colorectal cancer and take confidence in your medical choices by learning more about the disease, the risk factors, symptoms, how it is diagnosed, and ways to treat it.
What is Colorectal Cancer?
Colon cancer and rectal cancer are often grouped together as colorectal cancer because they have many features in common with the difference being where the cancer begins. 96% of colorectal cancers start as a growth or polyp on the inner lining of the colon or rectum. The challenge with tracking data separately has been a large number of deaths incorrectly attributed to colon cancer instead of rectal cancer. Colorectal cancer covers both cancers in terms of screening and identifying symptoms, and you only need to distinguish the difference once a diagnosis has been made and treatment begins.
What Puts a Person at Risk for Colorectal Cancer?
As with all cancers, there can be numerous contributing risk factors associated with colorectal cancer, like a poor diet high in red and processed meats and low in fruits and vegetables, smoking, heavy drug or alcohol use, and not getting enough exercise. Unfortunately, there are several risk factors that you cannot control that put you in a higher risk category for developing the disease. The most common risk factors are:
- Age: Over 90% of individuals diagnosed with colorectal cancer are over the age of 50. If you are between the ages of 50 and 75, you should consider regular screenings with your doctor.
- Family History: If you have a family member, especially one under the age of 60 who was diagnosed with colorectal cancer, your chances of developing the disease nearly double.
- Medical History: Do you suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome/Disease (IBS/IBD) or have you been diagnosed with adenomatous polyps? Chronic inflammation of the large intestine can give you a higher chance of developing colorectal cancer and, although these polyps are not cancer, adenomatous polyps can develop into cancer over time.
How Will I Know if I Have Colorectal Cancer?
There are few telltale symptoms for colorectal cancer that can develop with very little warning. However, you should watch for the following subtle changes if you are at high risk of developing colorectal cancer.
- Changes in your bowel habits which might consist of diarrhea, constipation, or a general change in your stool.
- Persistent pain including gas, cramping, bloated feelings, or feeling as though you cannot empty your bowels.
- Rectal bleeding causing your stool to be either very dark or bright red.
- General weakness or fatigue which can include losing weight for no apparent reason.
How is Colorectal Cancer Diagnosed?
To properly diagnose colorectal cancer, you will have to see your doctor to review your medical history and see which screening you should have. If you notice any changes in your bowel health or reoccurring symptoms, it is important to call your doctor, especially if you are high risk. Colorectal cancer is diagnosed through one or a combination of many medical tests. Some of the most common tests include the following:
- Fecal Immunochemical Test (FIT) or Fecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT): These yearly tests evaluate stool samples for blood that cannot be seen with the naked eye. Although there are several possible causes of blood in the stool, one important cause is the presence of polyps or cancers in the digestive tract.
- Colonoscopy: This test allows your doctor to have a visual inspection of your bowels to check for warning signs of colorectal cancer. It is typically performed every ten years if no warning signs, such as polyps, are found.
What are the Treatment Options for Colorectal Cancer?
The good news is that if you catch colorectal cancer early with regular screenings and are in overall good health, your chances of survival are high. The 5-year survival rate for colorectal cancer is 65%, over twice what it was in 1970 due to medical advances and early screening. Treatment options vary depending upon your health, age, and cancer stage, and may include:
- Surgery to remove the tumor
- Chemotherapy to combat the cancer cells
- Radiation therapy
March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month
Now that you’ve had a brief overview of colorectal cancer, you are better informed to make smart decisions about your own health. It is important to get regular screening and talk with your doctor about your risks. If you are at risk for colorectal cancer and have been experiencing any symptoms, call your doctor today at 1-888-580-1060.
Sources: American Cancer Society (ACS),
Center for Disease Control (CDC),
Colorectal Cancer Alliance (CCA)