8 key facts to know about colorectal cancer
Colorectal cancer is a leading cancer killer. Each year, it claims more than 50,000 lives nationwide. But it doesn’t have to be so deadly. To learn how to help protect yourself from this cancer, just keep reading. You’ll also learn other must-know facts about the disease, which can develop either in the colon or rectum.
The lifetime risk of colorectal cancer is slightly higher for men. About 1 in 23 American men is diagnosed with colorectal cancer. That compares to about 1 in 25 women.
You should never ignore symptoms. Because colorectal cancer grows slowly, you could have the disease and still feel completely healthy. That’s why you need to see your primary care provider (PCP) if you have any of these possible red flags of colorectal cancer:
- A change in bowel movements, such as diarrhea, constipation or a narrowing of stool that lasts for more than a few days.
- An urge to have a bowel movement that doesn’t go away despite having one.
- Rectal bleeding.
- Dark stool or blood in the stool.
- Belly pain.
- Weakness or fatigue.
- Unintended weight loss.
On a reassuring note: These symptoms are often triggered by something other than cancer, such as hemorrhoids or irritable bowel syndrome. But don’t take the risk: Let your PCP determine the cause.
3. How it starts
Most colorectal cancer starts as growths called polyps. Not all polyps become cancerous. But over time, some—usually ones called adenomas—can change into cancer. Typically, this takes 10 to 15 years.
Screening saves lives. It can find colorectal cancer early—before it spreads and causes symptoms. About 9 out of 10 people with early stage colorectal cancer survive for at least five years. Better yet, screening can actually prevent colorectal cancer.
That’s why the American Cancer Society advises people at average risk of colorectal cancer to get screened starting at age 45. Your PCP can help determine if you need earlier screening because of your family history of colorectal cancer or because you have certain health conditions.
You have screening choices. One is a colonoscopy. During this test, doctors use a thin, flexible, lighted tube to check for cancer or polyps inside the rectum and entire colon. Doctors can find most precancerous polyps during this screening test—and then remove them so that cancer can’t develop. They can also remove some cancers during the test. A colonoscopy is also used as a follow-up if something unusual is found with other screening tests.
Other screening options include several types of stool tests, which you can do at home with a test kit. They either detect hidden blood in the stool that might be a sign of colorectal cancer or abnormal sections of DNA from polyps or cancer cells.
There is no single best test for every person. The right match is the one you prefer and are most likely to do.
6. Healthy habits
Healthy habits may reduce your risk of the disease. Longtime smokers are more prone to colorectal cancer. So are people who carry extra pounds. A diet that’s high in red meat (such as beef, lamb and liver) and processed meats (such as cold cuts and luncheon meats) raises colorectal cancer risk, as does being sedentary.
That means you can help protect yourself by avoiding tobacco, eating a healthy diet, staying at (or getting to) a healthy weight and moving more.
7. Risk factors
Some risk factors can’t be changed. Risk increases with age. You’re also more vulnerable to colorectal cancer if you have:
- Ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease.
- A history of adenomatous polyps, especially if they are large or there are many of them.
- A family history of colorectal cancer—for example, a parent, sibling or child diagnosed with the disease. In about 5% of colorectal cancer cases, an inherited gene is to blame. So be sure to discuss your family history of colorectal cancer with your PCP.
8. It’s survivable
More than ever, colorectal cancer is survivable. Since 1970, the mortality rate for colorectal cancer nationwide has fallen by 55%—a trend fueled by dramatic progress in the prevention, detection and treatment of this cancer. Those treatment advances include the increasing use of targeted therapies that attack specific genes and changes in cells that cause colon cancer. Today, there are more than 1.5 million survivors of colorectal cancer in the U.S.
Sources: American Cancer Society; American Society of Clinical Oncologists; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
BLURB: Screening for colorectal cancer saves lives. Talk to your primary care provider (PCP) about which screening test is right for you. Don’t have a PCP? We can find one for you. Call 830.401.7401.
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