Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer and the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. Even so, about a third of Americans over 50 — the recommended age for screening — haven’t been checked. Some want to avoid uncomfortable testing procedures, while others are unaware or unwilling to face potentially serious complications.
Fortunately, colorectal cancer is a treatable and often curable disease, and timely screenings save thousands of lives each year. If you’re still on the fence about getting checked, or if you have any common risk factors, it’s vital that you educate yourself. The following are seven things you didn't know about colorectal cancer that may surprise you.
1. It’s preventable.
Like most cancers, colorectal cancer has many hereditary and lifestyle-related risk factors. Even with a long family history, however, you’re not doomed to get the disease. Most cases begin with non-cancerous polyps in the large intestine, and removing these polyps removes much of the risk. Of course, the earlier and more regularly you’re screened, the more likely your doctor will be to find and remove polyps before they become cancerous.
2. Anyone can get it.
Colorectal cancer has a long list of risk factors, many of which are common to other cancers, as well. These factors include:
- Family history of colorectal cancer
- Personal history of cancers in the colon, rectum, ovary or breast
- Personal history of polyps
- Previous cases of ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Poor diet
Still, anyone can get colorectal cancer, and 75 percent of cases occur in the absence of known risk factors.
3. Symptoms don’t always present (at first).
Cancers often progress for months before their symptoms become apparent, and colon cancer is no exception. In fact, many patients don’t realize they have any problems until their cancers metastasize to their liver or bones. Most polyps become cancerous before symptoms arise, making it all the more important to get screened sooner than later. In the meantime, be on the lookout for the following symptoms.
- Diarrhea and constipation
- Rectal bleeding and bloody stools
- Cramping or abdominal pain
- Unexplained weight loss and fatigue
4. Lifestyle choices matter.
A healthy lifestyle may significantly decrease your risk of colorectal cancer. Nutrition has a profound effect on the health of your bowels, and a high-fiber, vegetable-rich diet can help you avoid the formation of polyps. Of course, regular exercise, moderating alcohol consumption and avoiding tobacco can also make a difference, and your colon health tends to improve with the rest of your health markers.
5. Supplements may matter for prevention.
Vitamin D may be particularly important for reducing the risks of cancer, heart disease and stroke, and its benefits are currently being researched. Aspirin may also have a preventative effect, and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has recommended that adults age 50 to 59 use a low dose.
6. Colorectal cancer can be a complication of IBD.
Over a million Americans live with inflammatory bowel diseases, the chronic inflammation of the digestive tract. IBD includes ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, both of which can lead to life-threatening conditions such as colorectal cancer, obstructive pulmonary disease and malnutrition.
7. Not every screen is invasive.
While a colonoscopy is the gold standard exam for patients exhibiting symptoms of colorectal cancer, it isn’t the only option for preventive screenings. Some patients now have access to computed tomography (CT) colonography, which generates a three-dimensional X-ray of the colon. There is also a home test called Cologuard, which tests the stool for elevated levels of potentially cancerous DNA.
Still, the traditional colonoscopy isn’t as bad as many patients fear. The procedure is fast and painless, and polyps can be removed during the exam itself. In fact, most patients report that the prep work the night before is worse than the actual colonoscopy. If you or a loved one has seen some of the telltale signs of colorectal cancer, or if you’re over 50, your best bet is to schedule an exam as soon as possible. For a convenient appointment, call Bay Area Digestive Health at 419-663-8061.
Dr. Alfred Kafity, DO, FACP, FACG contributed to this post. He is board certified by the American Board of Gastroenterology and is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians and a Fellow of the American College of Gastroenterology.