Sara Smith Maguire, M.D. FACS
It may not be the most glamorous subject, but talking about colorectal cancer saves lives. Among cancers affecting both men and women, it is the second leading cause of cancer-related death in the US. Unlike many cancers, we have effective tools to help decrease the development of colorectal cancer and identify its presence at an earlier stage.
The risk of colorectal cancer increases with age, with more than 90% of the cases we see being diagnosed in people age 50 or older. There are many factors that are associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer. Some of these risk factors are related to lifestyle choices and are therefore modifiable. Maintaining a healthy weight, being physically active, not using tobacco, avoiding heavy alcohol intake and eating a balanced diet that limits intake of red or processed meat can all help decrease your risk. Some risk factors can’t be changed; these include increasing age, a family history of colon cancer, inflammatory bowel diseases and belonging to certain ethnic groups.
Colorectal cancer may cause symptoms as it grows. These symptoms include seeing blood in or on your stool, unintentional weight loss, a change in bowel habits and weakness or fatigue caused by a low blood count.
Screening is the practice of looking for cancer or pre-cancer in individuals without symptoms. Screening is incredibly effective when it comes to colorectal cancer because, from the time the first abnormal cells start to develop, it takes on average 10-15 years for those cells to become cancer. Screening is one of our most effective tools for preventing colorectal cancer because it allows us to identify precancerous polyps and identify small cancers that aren’t yet big enough to produce symptoms.
There are several screening tools for colorectal cancer, including colonoscopy which allows us to both find polyps and remove them. Talking to your doctor about your risk factors can help identify the most effective and appropriate screening test for you. In general, screening is recommended between the ages of 50 and 75, though there are reasons to start earlier or stop later for some people. Every year, about 140,000 people in the US will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer and 50,000 people will die from it. Our best tool to decrease both of these numbers is screening. Talk to your doctor today.