Q & A: Colorectal Cancer

March is National Colorectal Awareness Month, an observance dedicated to encouraging patients, survivors, and caregivers to share their stories, advocate for colorectal cancer prevention, and inform others about the importance of early detection.

Regular screening, now beginning at age 45, is the key to preventing colorectal cancer. If you’re 45 to 75 years old, get screened for colorectal cancer regularly. If you’re younger than 45 and think you may be at high risk of getting colorectal cancer, or if you’re older than 75, ask your doctor if you should be screened.

What is colorectal cancer?

Colorectal cancer is a cancerous growth involving the large intestine (the colon) or the rectum. It is one of the most common cancers in both men and women. It is serious, but can be prevented. Common symptoms include abdominal pain, alteration in bowel habits, blood in bowel movements, or anemia. The absence of symptoms does not exclude the possibility of colorectal cancer being present. Early detection and prevention is currently accomplished utilizing readily available screening tests including stool studies and colonoscopy. Treatment of colon cancer might include surgery, chemotherapy or radiation treatment. Future prevention strategies might include dietary, medication and lifestyle changes. Potentially modifiable risk factors include obesity, diabetes, tobacco, excess alcohol, excess processed meats and inactivity.

Who is at risk for colorectal cancer?

We all are at risk for colon cancer and some of us are at higher risk than others. Risk factors include: age, family history and certain other medical conditions including in inflammatory bowel disease (Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s Disease). Colon cancer risk increases with age and average risk individuals are advised to have their first screening at age 45. Screening is typically continued until age 75 (and sometimes beyond). Family history of colorectal cancer may warrant beginning screening at a younger age and repeated at more frequent time intervals.

Is colorectal cancer preventable?

Colorectal cancer is preventable. Current prevention strategies include primarily early detection. Colorectal cancer screening is a way to check the colon and rectum for signs of cancer or growths called polyps that might become cancer. It is done in people who have no symptoms and no reason to think they have cancer. The goal is to find and remove polyps before they become cancer or to find cancer early before it spreads. Studies have shown that undergoing colorectal cancer screening lowers the change of dying from colon cancer.

What is a colon cancer screening?

Screening tests for colorectal cancer are important tools for finding colorectal cancers early. The two most common screening tests available include stool studies and colonoscopy. Stool studies involve searching for indirect evidence of colon growths by detecting hidden blood or genetic caner makers. Main disadvantages of stool tests are missing polyp growths. Colonoscopy permits direct visualization of the entire colon. Polyp growths can then be removed at that time.

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