What You Can Do to Catch Colon Cancer Early

Know your risks for this highly preventable disease

Contirbutor:  Jeremy Lipman, MD

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Colorectal cancer has been in the headlines lately, given that an American Cancer Society study found the disease has become more common in younger adults under the age of 50.

The research team did not uncover the exact cause of this rise; however, these findings may be due to more young people not exercising or eating well.

While this trend is worrisome, the rates overall in younger people are still relatively low. Here’s what we know about colorectal cancer risk and what you can do to prevent it or catch it early.

Colon and rectal cancer are common — together, they’re the third most common cancer in the United States, and the second-leading cause of cancer death. About one in 21 people will get this.

So, they are serious but can also be highly preventable. Because the two cancers are related, they’re sometimes referred together as colorectal cancer.

How you can prevent colorectal cancer

Like most cancers, the most important thing you can do to lower your risk is stop smoking. This is really hard, but your doctor has lots of tools available to help you. So, if you’re a smoker, get help and stop. Today.

Diet also plays a big role in colorectal cancer risk. Eating a lot of red meat like beef increases your risk. And having more than one alcoholic drink per day can increase your chances (one per day is probably OK when talking about colorectal cancer).

On the other hand, you could reduce your risk by eating a lot of fiber, as well as fruits and vegetables. Your mom was right — they really are good for you.

If you’re overweight or don’t engage in a lot of activity each day, your likelihood of getting cancer is much higher than people who are active. If you can do 20 minutes of medium-level exercise daily, you can reduce your risk as much as 25 to 50 percent. A brisk walk, a slow bike ride and gardening all count.

There are some risks you can’t change. As you get older, your risk for colorectal cancer goes up. Colorectal cancer can show up with no symptoms at all, even in people who don’t think they’re at risk. So, everyone should be checked.

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There are a number of ways to get screened for colorectal cancer, but a colonoscopy is the only one that can help prevent cancer from even starting.

Screening for colorectal cancer

Colorectal cancer doesn’t just appear suddenly. It starts as a small growth on your colon called a polyp that rarely cause symptoms. If left alone over many years, polyps can grow into cancer. The only way to know it’s there is to look.

The good news is that if a polyp is detected during a colonoscopy, it can usually be removed. Once it’s removed, it can’t hurt you anymore. Your risk of cancer from that polyp is pretty much zero.

Since we started doing colonoscopies in the United States, the risk of getting and dying from colorectal cancer has greatly decreased.

If you’re 50 years old, it’s time to get a colonoscopy. If everything looks good and you have no polyps, you won’t need another one for 10 years.

Some people need to start getting colonoscopies earlier. African-Americans have a higher risk of developing colorectal cancer earlier than Americans of other backgrounds and should start getting colonoscopies at age 45.

People with a history of colorectal cancer in their families are at higher risk and may need to start having colonoscopies earlier.

About one in five people in the United States older than 50 have a polyp growing in them right now. If they have a colonoscopy, it can usually be removed and almost eliminate their risk of getting colorectal cancer from that polyp if they follow up as recommended.

In fact, about 85 percent of colorectal cancers we see could have been prevented with colonoscopies.

A lot of people are nervous about having a colonoscopy because of the prep needed to clean the colon out or worries about being uncomfortable during the exam. Bowel prep medications have changed a lot — there’s less to drink, and they taste better than they used to.

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During the exam, you get medications to put you in a state of twilight sedation. Almost all patients report that they’re comfortable, and many don’t even remember the exam.

Signs of colorectal cancer that you should get checked out

While it’s possible to have colorectal cancer and not know it, there are signs that can show up. If you see blood in your stool, you should definitely see your doctor to get checked.

A lot of things other than cancer can cause blood in the stool, but you should see your doctor to make sure everything is OK.

Other signs can include weight loss, changes in how often you have a bowel movement and changes in what your stool looks like. Any of these issues should lead to a visit with your regular doctor.

What if you get colorectal cancer?

Overall, we have made tremendous strides in treating colorectal cancer. Most colorectal cancers can be treated with surgery to remove the part of the bowel that has cancer in it.

Usually, this can be done without having an ostomy bag, and it can often be performed laparoscopically with small incisions.

For more advanced cancers, chemotherapy can be helpful after surgery to decrease the risk of it coming back. For rectal cancer, radiation treatment is also sometimes needed.

Overall, colorectal cancer is highly preventable, and if detected early, it’s also one of the most curable types of cancer. Up to 85 percent of colorectal cancers could be prevented or successfully treated if everyone who is eligible for a colonoscopy got screened.

That’s why it’s essential to get the word out about colorectal cancer prevention.

This post is based on one of a series of articles produced by U.S. News & World Report in association with the medical experts at Cleveland Clinic.