A person’s lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer is about 1 in 23 for men and 1 in 25 for women, making it the third most common cancer diagnosed in American men and women (excluding skin cancers).
In an effort to increase colorectal cancer awareness, we’re taking this opportunity to recognize the risk factors and preventive measures that can reduce your risk of a colorectal cancer diagnosis.
Colorectal Cancer Symptoms to Know
Changes in your stool, blood in your stool, unintentional weight loss and a sense of bloating or cramping that doesn’t go away could all be signs of colorectal cancer. However, in most instances, symptoms aren’t immediately noticeable, so that’s why preventive screenings are so important.
Blood Is a Key Warning Sign
Persistent diarrhea or mucus, bad lower abdominal cramps that don't go away, or blood mixed in with (or coating) your stool could be signs of inflammation of the colon. Blood, especially, is a key warning sign. While it may not always mean cancer — sometimes it's just from hemorrhoids or irritation in the anal canal — it’s always something to get checked out.
Many different medical conditions have overlapping symptoms, so if you are experiencing one or more of the colorectal cancer symptoms described, it isn’t time to panic. That just means it’s time to speak with your doctor and figure out the next steps together.
Who’s at Risk of Colorectal Cancer?
People who have inflammatory bowel diseases, like ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease, are at an increased risk of colorectal cancer.
A family history of colorectal cancer elevates your risk of developing it, too. Family history includes family members who had colon or rectal cancer, inflammatory bowel disease and other polyp-related syndromes. Of particular concern are those family members who developed colon or rectal cancer early in life.
Additionally, Black Americans have an increased risk of colon cancer, and men have a slightly higher risk than women.
When to Get Screened for Colorectal Cancer
While the average age group of diagnosis is between 50 and 60, patients of any age can develop colon cancer.
Up until 2018, the recommended screening age for colorectal cancer was 50. Now, health experts and the American Cancer Society suggest starting at age 45, because many colorectal cancer cases are now diagnosed in younger people.
Depending on the screening type and the findings, screenings should be done every year, or every five to ten years.
Colorectal Cancer Prevention: Screenings and Tests
Prevention is key to lowering your risk of colorectal-related issues, and that means getting regular screenings. Healthy lifestyle habits like a plant-based diet, regular exercise and avoiding alcohol and tobacco are all great ways to stay healthy, but screening is the most important prevention tool.
Types of Colorectal Screenings
Several screening tests can help find pre-cancerous polyps in the colon. A polyp is an abnormal growth of tissue in the colon that can lead to cancer. Your doctor can discuss these options with you to decide which test is best.
Colonoscopies should typically be done every 10 years. A long, thin, flexible tube is inserted in the rectum during a colonoscopy to check for polyps or cancer in the colon. During a colonoscopy, pre-cancerous polyps can be removed before they turn into cancer.
Computed Tomography (CT) colonoscopy
A computed tomography (CT) colonoscopy is a non-invasive option that can be done every five years. It uses X-rays and computers to produce images of the entire colon, so your doctor can analyze them closely.
A flexible sigmoidoscopy is similar to a traditional colonoscopy, but the tube is short and the doctor checks just the lower third of the colon. This test can be done every five years or every 10 years, combined with a stool test.
Before doing a procedure such as a colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy, your doctor may first suggest a stool test, which should be done about once per year.
A guaiac-based fecal occult blood test (gFOBT) uses a chemical called guaiac to detect blood in the stool. This test can be done at home with a kit provided by your doctor. Once you return the test kit to your doctor, they can then check the stool sample.
Another type of stool test is called the fecal immunochemical test (FIT), which uses antibodies to detect blood in the stool. This is also done at home using a test kit provided by your doctor.
The third type of stool test, often referred to as a DNA stool test, basically combines the FIT with a test that looks at altered DNA. For the DNA stool test, you would collect a bowel movement at home and send it to a lab for screening.
Treatment for Colorectal Cancer
Experts say the five-year survival rate for colon and rectal cancer is about 90% when diagnosed early, so timely screening is the best way to stay ahead of a diagnosis. The primary treatment for colon cancer is surgery; chemotherapy is only used for advanced colon cancer.
For early-stage cancers, surgery is used to remove any polyps that are found during your colonoscopy. Occasionally, a laparoscopy is required for larger polyps that can’t be removed during the colonoscopy.
For advanced cases, there are many different approaches available, including chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy and targeted drug therapy.