Colorectal cancer is found in the colon or rectum and typically develops from abnormal growths known as polyps. It’s also the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths and the third most common cancer diagnosed in the United States for men and women according to the American Cancer Society, yet many don’t recognize that it’s one of the most preventable and highly treatable cancers. March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, which serves as an important reminder to maintain your regular colon screenings even if you aren’t at high risk for the disease.
Know the risk factors + symptoms
Colorectal cancer affects people more often than one may realize. According to the American Society of Colon & Rectal Surgeons (ASCRS), the “average risk” individual has about a 5 percent chance of developing it in their lifetime. Average risk individuals are those who don’t have any of the known risk factors that would make it more likely for them to develop colorectal cancer.
These risk factors include obesity, poor diet, polyposis syndrome, inflammatory bowel syndrome (i.e. ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease), or having an immediate family member who had colorectal cancer. It’s also more common for people over the age of 50 and African Americans to be diagnosed. However, even if you don’t have any of the risk factors, you can still develop colorectal cancer.
“Remarkably, many of the patients I see who have been diagnosed with colorectal cancer are average risk individuals,” said Dr. Mark Pidala, M.D., an assistant professor of surgery at McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) and an attending colorectal surgeon at Memorial Hermann The Woodlands Medical Center. “This means they didn’t have any of the risk factors for the disease, yet still developed the cancer.”
Notably, patients have been getting diagnosed at ages younger than 50 in recent years, and more young people have been dying from the disease for reasons unknown. A recent and well-known example is actor Chadwick Boseman, who passed away from colon cancer at age 43 last year. Regardless of your age, it’s critical not to ignore any symptoms and have them assessed by a gastroenterologist or colorectal surgeon as soon as possible.
“If you experience any rectal bleeding, abnormal changes in bowel habits, abdominal pain or discomfort, or involuntary weight loss, then you should talk with your doctor to ensure colorectal cancer isn’t the underlying cause,” said Pidala.
However, patients with early-stage colorectal cancer usually don’t experience any symptoms, making it critical to be screened at the right time.
Importance of regular screenings + when to talk to your doctor
Colorectal cancer typically progresses slowly, so with periodic screenings you’re more likely to catch any abnormalities and effectively treat the cancer before it advances. Both the ASCRS and the American Cancer Society recommend that colonoscopy screenings should begin for average risk individuals at age 45. Patients who have known risk factors or symptoms may need to be screened earlier in life and more often.
There are several different screening options to choose from, but colonoscopies are the most effective to identify colorectal cancer and remove pre-cancerous polyps. The seamless and painless exam inspects the entire colon, removing any abnormal growths spotted. In fact, many patients consider the preparation for a colonoscopy to be the most challenging part.
Fortunately, a majority of insurance providers cover routine colonoscopy screenings, and you may only need to get one every 10 years if you have normal results. Other screening options include fecal immunochemical tests, fecal occult blood tests and virtual colonoscopies. These tests are done more often, and if the doctor finds any abnormalities, then you will need to have a follow-up colonoscopy.
Colorectal cancer is highly treatable when found early and can be cured in up to 90 percent of cases according to ASCRS, so it’s critical that you stay up to date with your regular screenings, whether you’re at a higher risk or not. If you’re over the age of 45, have any of the known risk factors, or if you’re experiencing symptoms regardless of your age, talk with your doctor about getting screened.
Treating + preventing colorectal cancer
If a patient has been diagnosed with colorectal cancer, doctors assign them a clinical stage based on how far their cancer has progressed. This helps determine the treatment plan for each patient based on the severity of their cancer, their personal preferences and other comorbidities – this could include chemotherapy, radiation or surgery.
At Memorial Hermann, our multidisciplinary team of surgeons, oncologists and radiation oncologists work with patients to help them decide which option works best for them and their clinical stage by providing a highly personalized treatment plan. We also continually stay apprised of the latest technology and treatment options, and our surgeons often use minimally invasive or robotic-assisted surgical procedures to remove colorectal cancer, allowing for easier and shorter recovery times for patients.
There are several measures you can take to reduce your risk of colorectal cancer by maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle, which decreases the chance for polyp formation. This includes regular exercise, limiting alcohol intake, quitting smoking and supplementing a healthy diet with vitamins. However, the most impactful thing you can do is schedule and keep your colon screenings. Take the first step in preventing a late-stage colorectal cancer diagnosis by scheduling your screening appointment online today at memorialhermann.org/services/colonoscopy.