Early detection is key to defeating colorectal cancer
By H. Scott Awender, MD, FACS, Akron General surgeon
March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, which creates an opportunity for awareness and education. Colorectal cancer develops in the colon (intestines), rectum or both and is also commonly called colon cancer or rectal cancer.
Colorectal cancer, the third most common cancer diagnosed in the United States, develops slowly over a period of years. It begins as a polyp, or abnormal growth in the lining of the colon or rectum. Some polyps are pre-cancerous and, over time, can change into colorectal cancer.
These pre-cancerous polyps can be identified and removed before changing into colorectal cancer during regular screening tests. Colorectal cancer, if found and treated early, has a five-year survival rate of about 90 percent, which is why screenings are so important.*
Risk factors for colorectal cancer
There are some risk factors that may increase your chances of developing colorectal cancer, including:
- Age: The average age at diagnosis is about 70 years old and more than 90 percent of people diagnosed with colorectal cancer are at least 50 years old.
- History of colorectal polyps or colorectal cancer: Those who have already had polyps or colorectal cancer are more likely to be diagnosed, even if treated and removed.
- Family history: About 20 percent of people diagnosed with colorectal cancer are related to someone who was also diagnosed with it.*
- History of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD): Those with IBD, including people with ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, are more likely to develop abnormal cells that can change into colorectal cancer.
- Genetic syndromes: Some genetic syndromes increase the risk of developing colorectal cancer, including Familial Adenomatous Polyposis (FAP) and Hereditary Non-polyposis Colorectal Cancer (HNPCC).
Some lifestyle choices that could also increase a person’s risk include:
- Diet: A diet that’s high in red and processed meats while low in whole grains, vegetables and fruits could increase the risk of developing colorectal cancer.
- Smoking: Some studies have suggested that people who are long-term smokers are more likely to develop colorectal cancer than non-smokers.
- Physical inactivity and obesity: Some evidence suggests that the risk for developing colorectal cancer increases for inactive and obese people, especially for men, compared to people who exercise regularly.
You can help prevent colorectal cancer by eating a high-fiber diet, exercising regularly, limiting alcohol intake and not smoking.
Colorectal cancer symptoms
If you have any of the following symptoms, talk to your healthcare provider today. Keep in mind, though, that some people who have polyps or colorectal cancer may not have symptoms, which include:
- A change in bowel habits, such as diarrhea, constipation or narrowing of the stool
- Feeling that your bowel does not empty completely
- Blood in the stool (either bright red or very dark), dark stools or any rectal bleeding
- Cramping, abdominal pain, feeling bloated or full
- Weakness and fatigue
- Nausea and vomiting
Early detection through screenings
The American Cancer Society recommends that everyone have a colorectal cancer screening beginning at age 50. Those who have a higher risk should talk to their doctor about beginning screenings at an earlier age or more frequently. Current recommendations call for a colonoscopy every 10 years, a flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years or a high-sensitivity fecal occult blood test annually.
A colonoscopy is considered one of the most important screening tests because it allows your healthcare provider to examine the entire rectum and colon using a thin, flexible, lighted instrument called a colonoscope. During the procedure, the doctor looks for any abnormalities, including polyps, which can be removed using a special instrument. The doctor also can take a biopsy, which is a tissue sample that can be examined further for any traces of cancer.
Patients are comfortably sedated for a colonoscopy, which usually only takes 15-30 minutes. Prior to the screening, patients must cleanse the colon completely. While the preparation period and procedure take time and effort, you’ll be able to resume normal activities the next day.
A flexible sigmoidoscopy is similar to a colonoscopy, except the instrument used is smaller and is only able to look at the rectum and lower colon. While the preparations for this screening are less thorough compared to a colonoscopy, there may be a disadvantage; only the lower colon is examined, which means any polyps located in the upper colon could go undiagnosed.
A high-sensitivity fecal occult blood test is used to detect colorectal cancer. This test involves the examination of stool samples, usually from three different bowel movements. While there is no preparation, this test cannot detect polyps and if an abnormality is found, additional testing may be needed.
Don’t wait until it’s too late
Colorectal cancer can be prevented with regular screenings, which are well worth the time and effort. Don’t wait until you have symptoms to talk to a doctor. If you or your loved one is over 50 or at an increased risk, talk to your doctor today about scheduling a screening. It could save your life.
*Source American Cancer Society
This information is meant for educational purposes only and should not be considered specific medical advice.
Most physicians at Akron General are independent practitioners.