The topic of colorectal cancer consistently remains in the news, given that an American Cancer Society study found the disease has become more common in younger adults under the age of 50.
Additional research continues to speculate that the cause may be linked to more young people not exercising or eating well.
While this trend is worrisome, the rates 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.
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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 1 in 24 people will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer.
“These cancers are serious but can also be highly preventable,” says colorectal surgeon Jeremy Lipman, MD. 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,” says Dr. Lipman. This can be difficult, but your doctor has tools available to help you. So, if you’re a smoker, get help and stop. Today.
Diet also plays an important 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,” Dr. Lipman adds. Your mom was right — they really are good for you.
If you’re overweight or don’t engage in enough physical 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%. 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.
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, which rarely causes 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 pretty much goes down to zero.
“Since we started doing colonoscopies in the United States, the risk of being diagnosed with and dying from colorectal cancer has greatly decreased,” says Dr. Lipman.
If you’re 45 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. People with a history of colorectal cancer in their families or people with other problems with their colon are at higher risk and may need to start having colonoscopies earlier.
About 1 in 5 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.
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.
During the exam, you will either receive medications to put you in a state of twilight sedation or go completely to sleep. 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 and symptoms that can be detected. If you see blood in your stool, you should definitely see your doctor to get checked.
Issues 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.
The best course of action is to do just that – take action! Visit your doctor and schedule a colonoscopy if you are 45+, as soon as possible.
“Overall, colorectal cancer is highly preventable, and if detected early, it’s also one of the most curable types of cancer,” notes Dr. Lipman. Up to 85% 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.