According to the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancers are the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States and the second leading cause of cancer death in men and women in the U.S. While more than 130,000 new cases of colon and rectal cancers are expected to be diagnosed in 2021, the overall incidence and death rates associated with this disease have been on the decline for more than a decade. Effective screening in the form of colonoscopies is the primary driver of these declines, which is why it is recommended that all men and women begin routine testing at the age of 50.
If found early, the five-year survival rate for colon cancer is about 92%, which the five-year survival rate for rectal cancer is roughly 87%. Unfortunately, only 40% of colorectal cancers are diagnosed at an early stage, partly due to low screening rates.
“Colorectal cancers are much more treatable when caught early,” said Dr. Kasim Kazbay, Gastroenterologist at UP Health System – Marquette. “Colonoscopies can not only improve our ability to detect colorectal cancer quickly, but they can also help us identify and remove polyps before they become cancerous. We recommend that everyone talk to their doctor about their colorectal cancer risks and discuss when a colonoscopy could be right for them.”
What are the symptoms of colorectal cancer?
In the early stages, colorectal cancers are often symptomless, which is why screening is so important. While 90% of new cases occur in people 50 or older, colorectal cancers do not discriminate and can happen to men and women at any age.
See your doctor if you have any of these warning signs:
Bleeding from the rectum;
Blood in the stool or in the toilet after a bowel movement;
A change in your bowel habits, including diarrhea or constipation or a change in the consistency of your stool;
Persistent cramping or discomfort in the lower abdomen;
An urge to have a bowel movement when the bowel is empty;
Constipation or diarrhea that lasts for more than a few days;
Decreased appetite, nausea, or vomiting; and
Unintentional weight loss.
While these symptoms also can be associated with other health conditions, your doctor can help you determine the cause.
Preventing colorectal cancer
Screening is the number one way you can reduce your risk of colorectal cancer.
Most cases of colorectal cancers begin as small, noncancerous clumps of cells called adenomatous polyps. Over time some of these polyps become cancerous. Screening helps physicians detect and remove polyps to prevent cancer from occurring.
Proactively preventing colorectal cancer also involves a healthy lifestyle. Daily exercise, eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, limiting your alcohol intake, and not smoking all can reduce your risk of colorectal and many other forms of cancer.
Knowing your family history is also helpful. Those with an immediate relative (parent, sibling, or offspring) diagnosed with colorectal cancer are two- to three times more likely to develop the disease.
What to expect during a screening or colonoscopy
If you’re over 50, high risk or symptomatic, it’s important to talk to your doctor about getting checked.
Colonoscopies are easier procedures than many realize. Shortly before the procedure, you will likely be given pain medication and a sedative to minimize discomfort during the colonoscopy.
During the procedure, any polyps found will be removed by the doctor and tissue samples will be sent for biopsy.
Keep in mind that you will need to follow a special diet the day before your colonoscopy and have someone available to take you home after it is over.
Contact your primary care provider or visit www.mgh.org/our-services/digestive-and-liver to learn more about colorectal cancer symptoms, detection and prevention, local resources, and how to schedule a screening. Need a primary care provider? Visit our Find a Doc tab at www.MGH.org.