March: National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month

In the spirit of cancer awareness, let’s take a little quiz:

  1. Which cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in America?
  2. Which cancer can be cured in around 90% of cases if detected early?
  3. Which cancer is often preventable?

The answer to all three questions is, surprisingly, colorectal cancer. Many people don’t know how common this cancer is, and how certain types are very preventable. March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and the goal is to raise awareness about this prevalent cancer.

Colorectal cancer is cancer of the colon and rectum. Every year, 140,000 people are diagnosed with the cancer, and it kills around 56,000 people a year.

Colorectal Cancer: Who is at risk?

The general public has a 5% risk of developing colorectal cancer in their lifetime. Those with a family history have a 10-15% risk, and that number jumps to 50% for people with ulcerative colitis or Chron’s disease.

The risk of colorectal cancer goes up as you age, and all men and women over the age of 50 should get screened regularly. Those at higher risk should be screened earlier.

People with certain lifestyle factors—smoking, obesity, and diabetes—are at increased risk of developing colorectal cancer. According to a study done by researchers at University of Medicine & Dentistry of NJ (UMDNJ), people in this category seem to be less likely to go for screening than the average population.

Colorectal Cancer: What are the symptoms?

Many times, this cancer is a silent disease, and it develops without symptoms. Some patients do have symptoms, which include:

  • Bloody stool
  • Change in bowel movements
  • Narrower stools
  • Stomach bloating and/or cramps
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Frequent gas pains
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Constant fatigue

If any of these symptoms persist for longer than two weeks, consult your doctor immediately. Of course, it probably isn’t a sign of colorectal cancer, but having any of these symptoms for that long isn’t normal in any case, and you should be evaluated.

Colorectal Cancer: How is it prevented?

Most cases of colorectal cancer develop from polyps—mushroom-like growths on the lining of the colon and rectum. Polyps start off benign, but if they’re not removed, they can become cancerous.

Polyps tend to develop in people over 50, which is why the recommended age for screening is 50. Some people, especially those with family history of polyps, are at higher risk and should be screened earlier.

Screening generally means getting a colonoscopy, an invasive exam that uses a flexible tube fitted with a camera to check the entire length of the colon for polyps. If the exam does detect polyps, the doctor can usually remove them on the spot.

There are other, less invasive, screening methods, including stool testing, x-ray testing with contrast, and external scans.

Regular screening is the best way to prevent colorectal cancer, or detect it when it’s still small and more easily treated. It’s March: talk to your doctor about getting screened today.

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