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March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month

Brooke Phillips, CWCMS
Editor | Shield HealthCare
02/12/14  8:16 PM PST
Colorectal Cancer

In February 2000, March was officially declared National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. This March, Shield HealthCare is joining together with colon cancer patients, survivors, caregivers and health care professionals in an effort to raise awareness about colorectal cancer and the lifesaving effects of screening and early detection.

What is Colorectal Cancer (Colon Cancer)?

This cancer (also called colon cancer, rectal cancer and bowel cancer) is cancer that begins in the tissues of the colon or rectum. It is the third most common cancer in the United States and the second leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. for men and women combined. More than 140,000 Americans are diagnosed with this type of cancer every year, and approximately 50,000 – or 1 in 3 – lose their battle with the disease. However, through screening and early detection, colorectal cancer is one of the most preventable, treatable and beatable diseases.

Did You Know:

  • There are currently more than one million colorectal cancer survivors in the United States
  • 1 in every 20 Americans will develop colorectal cancer.
  • 90% of new cases occur in people 50 or older. However, colorectal cancer can develop in men and women at any age – even without a family history of the disease.
  • Individuals with an immediate relative who has colorectal cancer have up to three times the risk of developing the disease.
  • If everyone 50 years or older were regularly screened, up to 80% of deaths from colorectal cancer could be prevented.

Early Detection and Survival Rates

Most colorectal cancers start by developing as colorectal polyps. These abnormal growths inside the colon or rectum can be removed before they become cancerous. With regular screening, colorectal cancer can be detected in its precancerous or early cancer stages, when treatment is most effective. The earlier that cancer (or precancerous polyps) are detected, the greater a person’s chance of successful treatment.

Thanks to increased awareness and screening efforts, the colorectal cancer survival rate has been increasing since the 1980s. The five year survival rate of those diagnosed when the cancer is discovered early (at a local stage) is more than 90%. Colorectal cancer currently has a 70% five year survival rate once the cancer has spread to a regional stage, and a 12% survival rate once the cancer has spread to distant parts of the body. Only 39% of colorectal cancers are currently discovered at a local stage, making screening and early detection that much more important.

Symptoms

Unfortunately, colorectal cancer can be present without any symptoms at all. When the cancer first develops, there may be few to no symptoms. Possible symptoms of colorectal cancer include:

  • A noticeable change in bowel habits, such as diarrhea or constipation that lasts several weeks or a change in stool consistency
  • Finding blood (either bright red or very dark) in your stool, or rectal bleeding
  • Feeling that the bowel does not empty completely
  • Stools that are consistently narrower or thinner than usual
  • Persistent abdominal discomfort, such as cramps, gas pains or bloating
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Constantly feeling weak, exhausted or fatigued
  • Having nausea or vomiting

Because these symptoms are also associated with other health conditions, only a qualified health professional can determine the cause of the symptoms.

Risk Factors

Research has shown that people with certain risk factors are more likely than others to develop colorectal cancer, although no one knows the exact causes of the disease. Some factors that may increase your risk include:

  1. Age: Colorectal cancer is more likely to occur in people 50 or older. More than 90% of cases are diagnosed in people over age 50, and the average age at diagnosis is 72. However, incidents of colorectal cancer in people under age 50 are increasing.
  2. Colon polyps: Colon polyps are abnormal tissue growths on the inner wall of the colon or rectum, and their presence is common in people over age 50. Most polyps are benign (not cancerous), however some polyps can become cancerous over time.
  3. Personal history: Someone who has already had colorectal cancer once is at greater risk for developing the cancer a second time. Women who have had ovarian cancer, breast cancer or uterine cancer also have an increased risk of developing colorectal cancer.
  4. Family history: Having a close relative (immediate family member) with a history of colorectal cancer  more than doubles your risk of developing this disease. The more close relatives you have with a history of this cancer, the greater your risk.
  5. Ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease: Someone who has been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease (both conditions that cause inflammation of the colon) is at increased risk of developing colorectal cancer, especially if that condition has been present for many years.
  6. Inherited genetic conditions: Some inherited genetic conditions increase the risk of colon cancer, including Hereditary Nonpolyposis Colon Cancer (HNPCC) and Familial Adenomatous Polyposis (FAP).
  7. Poor diet: Although more research is needed to substantiate diet study results, current studies suggest that diets low in calcium, folate and fiber and high in red meat and animal fat may increase your risk of developing colorectal cancer.
  8. Lifestyle: Cigarette smoking, inactivity and obesity have been linked to an increased risk of developing colon polyps and colorectal cancer. Some studies show that daily physical activity may decrease risk of colorectal cancer by up to 50%.

Resources

For more information about colorectal cancer screening, treatment, prevention, and patient resources, visit the Colon Cancer Alliance, the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which provided source information for this article.

The following websites also offer tools to help locate a colorectal specialist or low-cost screening facility in your area:

This information is intended for educational purposes only and does not replace the advice of your doctor or other health care professional. If you have questions about your health, please contact your primary care physician.

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