Join Colorectal Cancer Alliance at Freedom Plaza on March 27, 2022, to run or walk the DC ScopeItOut 5K. Register today, fundraise and build your team, and get ready to run during colorectal cancer awareness month. For those not able or not yet comfortable being in person, run in your own neighborhood as a virtual ScopeItOut Coast to Coast runner.
A study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute made headlines for its startling and mysterious conclusion: The incidence of colorectal cancer in young adults has increased sharply in generations born after 1950. Individuals born in the 1990s (currently age 18 to 27) are twice as likely to develop colon cancer and four times as likely to develop rectal cancer than individuals born in the 1950s were at those ages.
Why is this type of cancer suddenly on the rise in younger adults? No one knows for certain. Researchers suspect changes in diet, more sedentary lifestyles, and obesity could be contributing factors. Another theory is that cancers are simply being detected much earlier than in past decades.
What Is Colorectal Cancer?
Colorectal cancer refers to cancer that begins in the colon or rectum, which together make up the large intestine. Sometimes they are referred to individually as colon cancer or rectal cancer. Most colorectal cancers begin with a polyp that develops on the inner lining of the colon or rectum. The two primary types of polyps are adenomas, which are most likely to become cancer, and hyperplastic and inflammatory polyps, which are more common but far less likely to become cancerous.
Polyps are common in people age 50 and older. Most aren’t cancerous. If a polyp does become cancerous, cancer cells can eventually spread to the wall of the colon or rectum. From there, they can spread to the blood or lymph vessels of the colon or rectum and eventually spread to lymph nodes and metastasize throughout the body.
Colorectal Cancer: Signs and Symptoms
As with many cancers, colorectal cancers sometimes occur with minimal — or no — symptoms. More often than not, though, this cancer is associated with telltale signs. If you know what to watch for, you’ll know if and when it’s time to schedule a colorectal screening to rule out cancer. If you develop any of the following symptoms, consult your doctor right away. It’s better to be safe than sorry!
Any indication of blood on or in the stool.
Cramps, gas or unusual stomach pain that persists.
Unexplained weight loss.
Constipation, diarrhea, bowel incontinence or other unusual bowel habits.
Feeling that your bowel isn’t emptying completely.
How to Reduce Your Risk of Developing Colorectal Cancer
According to the American Cancer Society, there is no way to definitively prevent colon cancer — or most cancers, for that matter. Some of the main risk factors for developing colorectal cancer — family history, advanced age and history of inflammatory bowel disease — aren’t within your control.
Others risk factors are within your control. Doctors recommend taking the following steps to reduce your risks:
Maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding excess weight around your midsection.
Participating in regular moderate exercise.
Increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables and limiting red and processed meats.
Avoiding excess alcohol consumption.
Screening Is The Most Powerful Preventive Tool
Arguably, the most effective way to reduce the likelihood that you’ll develop colorectal cancer is to undergo regular colorectal cancer screening to detect cancerous or precancerous cells in the absence of other symptoms.
It takes about a decade for precancerous cells to form polyps. Screenings can detect precancerous polyps, so they can be removed before they become cancerous, and can detect cancerous polyps early when the cancer is curable.
Colorectal screening methods include fecal blood tests and colonoscopy. During a colonoscopy, a flexible tube with a viewing lens and tissue removal tool is inserted into the colon. A physician checks the colon lining for growths and can remove any abnormal growths detected.
Current guidelines recommend that most individuals consider a screening colonoscopy at age 50 — earlier for those with a family history of the disease talk to your physician about the best choice for your situation.
Colorectal cancer actually refers to two parts of the body: the colon and the rectum. Treatment options are often very similar so they’re typically bundled together when explaining prevention, detection and treatment options for either colon cancer or rectal cancer.
Thankfully because of new technologies and greater awareness of screening, the death rate from colorectal cancer has been dropping for decades. Here are some things you should know about how to reduce your personal risk of developing colorectal cancer.
Colorectal Cancer Can be Genetic
About one in five people who develop rectal or colon cancer have a close relative (parent, sibling or child) who has had colorectal cancer or a certain kind of colon polyp called adenomatous. If someone in your family has been diagnosed with this type of polyp you should talk to your doctor about starting colorectal cancer screening sooner than the typical age of 50.
There can also be a genetic cause of colorectal cancer for about 5-10% of colorectal cancer patients. If someone in your immediate family has been diagnosed, especially if they were diagnosed before the age of 45, you may want to talk to one of our cancer experts about a Genetic Risk Assessment. Knowing whether there are genetic changes present can help your doctor with recommending preventive measures and screening in the future.
Other Risk Factors For Developing Colorectal Cancer
There are quite a few other factors that can play into whether you’re at an increased risk of developing colorectal cancer. Some you can control while others you cannot.
Risk factors you can control to help prevent colorectal cancer include:
- Heavy alcohol use
Risk factors for colorectal cancer you cannot control in addition to your family history include:
- Age – Your risk increases after the age of 50.
- Race – African Americans have the highest death rate from colorectal cancer compared to all other races.
- Type 2 Diabetes – Those with Type 2 Diabetes are at an increased risk of developing colorectal cancer.
Regular Colorectal Cancer Screenings Save Lives
Even if you don’t have a family history, colorectal cancer specialists recommend that adults get screened between the ages of 50 and 75. The older you are, the higher your risk for developing the disease. While a colonoscopy is the most commonly used colorectal screening process, there are several other options such as:
- Sigmoidoscopy every five years. The doctor uses a flexible, lighted tube to check for polyps, remove them and have them tested. Unlike a colonoscopy, this test doesn’t require you to have anesthesia.
- Virtual colonoscopy every five years. This test does not require anesthesia either. A doctor takes X-rays of your colon, and a specialist looks for signs of cancer.
- Barium enema every five years. For people who can’t safely have a colonoscopy, a liquid is inserted into the rectum that allows trained technicians to see abnormal growths on an X-ray.
You Can Reduce Your Risks
Whether you have a family history of colorectal cancer or not, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing the disease. These lifestyle changes include:
- Get screened. Screenings find polyps that can be removed before they become cancerous.
- Exercise. Overweight people have a higher risk of colon cancer.
- Watch your diet. Eating lots of red meat or processed meats (like hot dogs) may increase your risk of colon cancer.
- Don’t smoke (or stop smoking). Smokers have a higher risk of colon cancer. An added bonus of quitting smoking is that you will also reduce your risk of developing many other diseases and cancers.
- Limit alcohol. Heavy drinkers have a higher risk of colon cancer.
Even people who are active, eat healthy diets and have no family history of colorectal cancer may develop the disease. If you start to experience any unusual bowel movements, pain or excessive bloating be sure to schedule an appointment with your general practitioner or gastroenterologist. If they find colorectal cancer present you will need to see a colon cancer specialist for treatment. If you live in or near Maryland, Maryland Oncology Hematology has nine locations making it possible for you to meet with a colorectal cancer specialist near you.