Talking about your colon and rectum might not be seen as polite conversation, but that's where colorectal cancer begins, and more awareness could save lives. Colorectal cancer is the third most common type of non-skin cancer in adults (after prostate and lung cancer for men and breast and lung cancer for women), but many people are at greater risk because they aren't aware of it and don't get screenings. March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, which makes it a great time to get screened and spread awareness.
What Is Colorectal Cancer?
Colorectal cancer is so named because it occurs in the colon or rectum, both parts of the digestive system. After food has passed through the stomach and small intestine, the colon (part of the large intestine) absorbs the food's nutrients and stores the waste before it's transferred to the rectum to leave the body as stool. Colorectal cancer occurs when abnormal cells in the colon or rectum divide and multiply into a tumor. Sometimes they first form a polyp, a smaller growth that is not cancerous, but may become malignant over time.
If colorectal cancer is detected before it has spread, more than 90% of patients will survive for five years or longer. However, only about four in ten colorectal cancers are found at this early stage, and survival rates decrease when cancer spreads.
Regular screenings are critical to prevention and detection of colorectal cancer. A screening might identify polyps, which could become cancerous, or other warning signs of cancer before it has advanced or spread and become harder to treat. In fact, the screening may provide more than just detecting cancer. If polyps are present, they can be removed before they potentially turn cancerous. If left untreated, colorectal cancer can spread to lymph nodes and other organs.
Your physician may recommend one of several different types of screenings:
- Fecal Occult Blood Test
"Occult" means hidden, which is why doctors use a microscope for this test to check stool for blood. If blood is found, it can be a sign of colorectal cancer, but it could also signify ulcers, hemorrhoids, diverticulosis, or inflammatory bowel disease, so most physicians will likely follow up with another kind of test to find the cause.
A doctor uses a sigmoidoscope to examine the rectum and part of the colon. A sigmoidoscope is a flexible tube with a light and video camera on the end; the images are displayed on a connected monitor. A physician can use this test to detect and possibly even remove abnormalities or polyps.
Similar to a sigmoidoscopy, in a colonoscopy, a doctor uses a colonscope - a thin, flexible tube with a light and video camera on the end - to examine the rectum and colon. In a colonoscopy, the doctor will examine the entire colon instead of only part (as in a sigmoidoscopy).
- Virtual or CT Colonoscopy
A virtual colonoscopy is a scan of the colon and rectum. This test examines the same areas as a colonoscopy but in a less invasive procedure. However, this means if polyps or abnormalities are identified, a second procedure would be required to remove them.
- DNA Stool Test
As the name implies, a DNA stool test examines stool for DNA evidence of cancer. Certain genetic changes could be a sign of colorectal cancer cells.
Some risk factors for colorectal cancer are out of your control, such as age (those over 50 are at an increased risk) and family history, but you should be aware of the risk factors you can manage, like obesity, physical inactivity, excessive alcohol consumption, and smoking, which all put you at a greater risk for colorectal cancer. People who have an inflammatory bowel disease also have an increased risk for colorectal cancer.
Signs and symptoms
In its early stages, colorectal cancer could have few or no symptoms, which is why regular screenings are so important. Some symptoms that could be a sign of colorectal cancer include:
- Blood in the stool
- Rectal bleeding
- Change in bowel habits
- Increased gas or stomach discomfort
- Frequent tiredness, especially during previously tolerated activities
- Unexplained weight loss
If you experience these symptoms, it's important to talk to your doctor. Early detection and treatment of colorectal cancer could save your life. More than 50,000 people die annually from colorectal cancer; it's the third highest cause of cancer-related deaths in men and second highest in women. The good news is that these numbers have been dropping over the last few years, likely at least in part because of an increase in screenings and awareness.
Education and Awareness Are the Key to Prevention
While there's no way to prevent colorectal cancer, you can lower your chances of getting it by avoiding the risk factors you can control and getting regular screenings. Talking about this potentially uncomfortable topic can save lives, so talk to your doctor about scheduling your screening today, and talk to your family and friends about scheduling theirs.
American Cancer Society (2017). Importance of colorectal cancer screening. Retrieved from http://www.cancer.org/cancer/colon-rectal-cancer/early-detection/importance-of-crc-screening.html
American Cancer Society (2017). Colorectal cancer screening tests. Retrieved from http://www.cancer.org/cancer/colon-rectal-cancer/early-detection/screening-tests-used.html