Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month
March is colorectal cancer awareness month. Every year during the month of March, various organizations, medical facilities, and individuals seek to bring awareness and education to the general public about colorectal cancer. Excluding cancer of the skin, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in the United States and is diagnosed in both men and women. The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2020, about 150,000 new cases of colorectal cancer will be diagnosed.
What Is Colorectal Cancer?
Colorectal cancer is cancer that begins in either the rectum or the colon. This type of cancer may be called either colon cancer or rectal cancer, depending on its point of origin, but the two types of cancer are so similar that they are often lumped together into colorectal cancer. Polyps, or small growths, that are found on the inner lining of the rectum or colon are the foundation for colorectal cancer. Not all polyps are cancerous, but all cancer in the rectum or colon begins with polyps. Colorectal cancer can spread to other parts of the body if it is not detected early, so it is important to be aware of risk factors and symptoms, as well as the preventative measures you can take to minimize your chances of getting colorectal cancer.
As with most cancers, some risk factors are things you can control and some are not. Controllable risk factors include being overweight, being physically inactive, eating a poor diet, smoking, and overconsumption of alcohol. Some uncontrollable risk factors include your age (colorectal cancer is more common in older adults, specifically those over 50), having a personal or family history of colorectal polyps or cancer, and having inflammatory bowel disease. Most people will begin to be screened for colorectal abnormalities with a colonoscopy after the age of 50. If you have a personal or family history, have experienced any symptoms of colorectal cancer, or are simply at a high risk for developing it, it is likely in your best interest to be screened before the age of 50.
Symptoms of Colorectal Cancer
In most cases, colorectal cancer will not cause any symptoms, especially if the cancer is in an early stage where it is most easily treated. This is why it’s extremely important to be diligent about getting screened for this type of cancer or any polyps or abnormal cells that could indicate future cancer in the colon or rectum. If you do experience symptoms of colorectal cancer, they would most likely include blood in or on stools, stomach pain or cramps that do not go away, and unexplained weight loss. These symptoms do not mean that you have colorectal cancer, but if you are experiencing them, you should be screened just to be sure.
Prevention & Screenings
The number one line of defense against colorectal cancer is screening for it. Do your best to minimize your risk factors as thoroughly as possible, but regardless of if you’re at a high or low risk of developing colorectal cancer, everyone should be screened for it every 10 years (at least) after they turn 45. The guidelines for screenings may differ based on the type of testing, the individual’s health and risk factors, and personal preference. Some options for colorectal cancer screening include stool-based tests (which are done every 1-3 years), colonoscopies, CP (virtual) colonoscopies (done every 5 years), or flexible sigmoidoscopy (done every 5 years).
Screenings can find colorectal cancer when it is very small and hasn’t spread yet, and it can sometimes even find pre-cancerous polyps and remove them before they have a chance to turn into cancer. Colorectal cancer can take a very long time to develop, so getting screened can not only help with treatment if cancer is found, but it can also help prevent colorectal cancer in the first place.
When colon or rectal cancer is discovered in its earlier stages before it has spread anywhere else, the 5-year survival rate is 90%, which is excellent. If it isn’t caught until after it has spread and has advanced in stages, colorectal cancer survival rates are much lower.
Treatment of Colorectal Cancer
If you are diagnosed with colorectal cancer, a lot will be considered before deciding on a treatment plan. Your age and overall health, the stage and severity of your cancer, and more will be discussed with your doctors and you will be given advice and an opportunity to weigh the pros and cons and risks versus rewards before making a decision on treatment.
Your primary care physician will likely be the individual to perform the standard colorectal cancer screening to begin with. If he or she discovers concerning cells or polyps, you will likely be referred to a specialist. This person may be a gastroenterologist, a surgical oncologist, a colorectal surgeon, a radiation oncologist, a medical oncologist, or you may see a combination of these doctors.
If your colorectal cancer is in an early stage and still localized to your colon or rectum, your doctor will likely proceed with a local treatment. This simply means that no other part of your body will be affected by the treatment; it will be either a localized surgery, a localized radiation therapy, or an ablation or embolization for the affected area. If your colorectal cancer has spread to other parts of the body or if surgery or other local treatments are not reasonable for you, your doctor will then consider systemic treatments. These are treatments that will affect cancer cells throughout the body, often by taking an oral medication or through medication injected into the bloodstream. Systemic treatments include chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and targeted therapy drugs. Depending on your overall health and the stage of your colorectal cancer, your doctor may utilize one or more of these treatment options to best eradicate the cancer cells.
Colorectal Cancer Awareness
Because colorectal cancer is easily discovered through screenings and easily treatable when found early, awareness and education are extremely important. The Colorectal Cancer Alliance works to band together patients, survivors, caregivers, advocates, and medical professionals across the country to bring awareness to this type of cancer. The organization encourages individuals to wear blue for awareness during the month of March, attend and participate in fundraising events, and talk to those in your community about risks, screenings, treatment, and more.
Although getting screened for colorectal cancer can be stressful and uncomfortable, it is far better than finding out years later that you have colorectal cancer that could have been prevented or treated earlier. Make an appointment to get your colonoscopy or other colorectal screening test done soon so that you can be at peace with your health and knowing what’s going on within your body. Talk to your doctor about the risks of colorectal cancer and your personal risks, and make a plan for how frequently you need to get screened and what type of screening test is best for you.
NCHS has appointments available for various screenings, tests, and wellness checks at many clinics across North San Diego and Riverside counties. Get in touch with the location nearest you today to set up your appointment.