7 Facts About Colorectal Cancer That Could Save Your Life
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March is colorectal cancer awareness month, a month dedicated to raising awareness of the second most common cancer-related cause of death in American men and women. This year alone, approximately 153,000 people will receive a new diagnosis of colorectal cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. What’s most staggering perhaps is the alarming trend of colorectal cancer in individuals younger than 50.

Although colorectal cancer is a common disease, it’s also one of the most preventable types of cancer which is why it’s important to know and manage your risk. Read on to learn the facts about colorectal cancer, including what you can do to help prevent the disease.


1. Although colon and rectal cancer share many common features, they are treated differently.

Colorectal cancer is any malignant (cancerous) tumor affecting any portion of the colon or rectum, which is the bottom-most portion of the colon (large intestine). The distinction between the two matters when it comes to treatment, but they are often lumped together because screening and diagnosis for both is the same. 

Most colorectal cancers begin as polyps, or small growths in the colon or rectum. Polyps are common and don’t always lead to cancer, but they can, which is why getting them removed during a colonoscopy screening is your best bet in colorectal cancer prevention. If they develop into cancer in the colon or rectum, your treatment will vary based on the size, depth, and location of the tumor, as well as whether or not it has spread.


2. Your genetics can significantly impact your chances of developing cancer.

Up to one-third of patients with colorectal cancer have a family member who also had the disease. As a result, one of the best ways to understand your risk of colorectal cancer is to talk to your family about it. And, knowing the age of diagnosis is important for those who have a parent, sibling, or child with colorectal cancer, as those diagnosed under 50 may be more likely to carry a gene alteration linked to the cause of cancer. 

For example, Lynch syndrome is a common inherited syndrome linked to colorectal cancer affecting an estimated 1 in 300 people. Individuals with this gene alteration have a 50 to 60 percent risk of the disease, compared to the average population with a risk of about 5 percent. Therefore, patients with Lynch syndrome may need to start screening around age 20 to ensure any sign of cancer is detected and treated early.

If you have a family history of the disease or early-onset cancer, it may be beneficial to talk to a genetic counselor. They can help you determine if you would benefit from genetic testing which would reveal whether or not you have Lynch syndrome or other rarer syndromes linked to cancer. In any case, it’s important to let your doctor know if you have a family history of the disease so they can ensure you start screening at the right age. If you don’t have a primary care provider, use our Find a Doctor tool to find one nearby.


3. A healthy lifestyle may protect you from colorectal cancer.

We can’t control all of our risk factors, but there are some we can change. Research proves that being physically active and eating a diet low in fat and high in fiber is an excellent way to help prevent colorectal cancer. In addition, avoiding or quitting smoking can lower your risk of developing colon polyps or many different kinds of cancer, including colorectal cancer.


4. Most people with early-stage colorectal cancer won’t experience any symptoms.

Many patients who have colorectal polyps or cancer won’t have any symptoms. However, others may experience:


  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloody stool
  • Bleeding from the rectum
  • A change in bowel habits or stool size

It’s important not to wait to get screened until you have symptoms. However, if you do notice changes in your stool, talk to your doctor right away so you can find and treat the cause.


5. When you should start screening will vary based on your risk factors.

Colorectal cancer screening is perhaps the most effective way you can protect yourself against cancer in the colon or rectum. In 2018, the American Cancer Society lowered the recommended screening age from 50 to 45, given the increasing diagnoses in younger patients. However those with higher risk factors, such as having a family history of colorectal cancer or personal history of cancer or polyps may benefit from earlier screening. It’s important to have conversations with your primary care provider about your risk so they can guide you on when to start screening.

Take our free colon cancer risk assessment.

6. Colonoscopy is the gold standard in screening because it’s both diagnostic and preventative.

The most well-known screening tool is a colonoscopy test, which allows your gastroenterologist to view the inside of the colon and rectum using a colonoscope, a thin, lighted tube attached to a camera. It’s considered to be the “gold standard” in colorectal cancer screening because any polyps found during the procedure can typically be removed right then and there. This eliminates the risk of those polyps developing into cancer in the future. 


7. The best colorectal cancer screening tool is the one you are willing to get.

You may be surprised to learn that there are several different ways we can screen for colorectal cancer. In addition to colonoscopy, virtual colonoscopy is another screening exam option that uses CT scans to visualize abnormalities in the colon lining. There are also noninvasive options that analyze your stool for microscopic signs of cancer, including:


  • Fecal immunochemical testing (FIT), which needs to be done annually
  • Cologuard®, which involves providing a larger stool sample for analysis every three years

Some patients find these tests to be more convenient because they can be done at home without any bowel prep. However, one disadvantage to stool analysis is the higher risk of false-positive test results. And if the results are positive, you will still need to undergo a colonoscopy for further evaluation.

It’s also important to know that if you have a high risk of developing this type of cancer, colonoscopy is recommended over the other options. But if you have an average risk, the best screening option is the one you’ll follow through with.

While you can’t always eliminate your risk of developing colorectal cancer, you can increase your odds of detecting it early when it’s easily treatable. The lifesaving measures are simple:

  • Talk to your family about their history of cancer
  • Modify the risk factors within your control
  • Get screened at the age recommended by your primary care doctor
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