Colorectal cancer is the second most common cause of cancer deaths for men and women combined. But there is good news: the number of deaths from colorectal cancer has been dropping in both men and women for several decades. One reason, researchers say, is the use of screening colonoscopies to remove colorectal polyps before they develop into cancers, or find cancers earlier when the disease is easier to treat. Another factor is that treatment for colorectal cancer has improved. In fact, there are now more than 1 million survivors of colorectal cancer in the United States.
But if you think you’re too young for a colonoscopy, consider this not-so-good news. While overall deaths have gone down, colorectal cancer deaths in those younger than 55 have increased 2 percent per year from 2007 to 2016.
To turn the tide on this trend, the American Cancer Society has recommended colon cancer screening for people at average risk of colon cancer beginning at age 45.
According to the American Cancer Society, you’re at average risk if you do not have:
- A personal history of colorectal cancer or certain types of polyps
- A family history of colorectal cancer
- A personal history of inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease)
- A confirmed or suspected hereditary colorectal cancer syndrome, such as familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) or Lynch syndrome (hereditary non-polyposis colon cancer or HNPCC)
- A personal history of getting radiation to the abdomen (belly) or pelvic area to treat a prior cancer
Regardless of your risk level, you should discuss colon cancer screening with your health care provider - and follow through with recommendations. The most common screening method is still the colonoscopy. During this procedure, you are sedated while your physician passes a tiny camera into the colon to look for all kinds polyps - but especially the more dangerous polyp called an adenoma.
Adenomas can turn into colon cancer if they are not removed. Removing these polyps is a powerful part of cancer prevention. It typically takes an adenoma 10 to 15 years to turn into colorectal cancer, so regular colonoscopies ensure adenomas are removed and thus greatly reduce the likelihood of them turning into a colon cancer. Polyps and early colon cancers can develop without causing noticeable symptoms, but sometimes symptoms do occur.
Things to watch for and report to your physician include:
- A change in bowel habits
- Blood in the stool
- Stools that are narrower than usual
- Abdominal discomfort/bloating
- Fever and chills that don’t go away
You can also make lifestyle changes which will reduce your risk for colon cancer.
Things you can do include:
- Strive for an ideal body weight
- Exercise regularly
- Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, lean cuts of meat such as chicken and fish
- Limit processed and red meats
- Use alcohol in moderation
- Quit smoking, or better yet, never start
The take home message during National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month is this: With healthy habits and early detection, you can catch colon cancer while it’s still very treatable - or avoid it all together.
(Shawn Morlock, RN, is the Cancer Program Coordinator at CHI St. Alexius Health.)