Colorectal cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer and the second leading cause of cancer deaths in American men and women.
Nine out of every 10 new cases are found in people age 50 or older. However, colorectal cancer can be diagnosed in men and women at any age. In an effort to educate the community on the risks and ways to prevent this deadly disease, Salem Community Hospital celebrates March as Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month.
According to Dr. Meredythe McNally, gastroenterologist, "It's very important to build awareness about colorectal cancer, so we are reminded of how important it is to take the necessary steps toward preventing it. Most colorectal cancers develop first as colorectal polyps, which are small, abnormal growths on the inner wall of the colon or rectum. From the time the first abnormal cells start to grow into polyps, it usually takes about 10 to 15 years for them to develop into cancer. During this time, a person may not experience any symptoms, which makes this type of cancer very difficult to detect in its early stages."
While the early stages of colorectal cancer may not have symptoms or cause pain, more advanced stages of this disease may cause:
4Rectal bleeding or blood in or on the stool
4Change in bowel habits or stools that are narrower than usual
4Stomach discomfort (bloating, fullness or cramps)
4Diarrhea, constipation or feeling that the bowel does not empty completely
4Weight loss for no apparent reason
Risk Factors of Colorectal Cancer
"People who are most at risk of developing colorectal cancer are men and women, age 50 years or older, or who may have a personal or family history of colorectal cancer or colorectal polyps or an inflammatory bowel disease, such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease," said Dr. McNally.
While some risk factors of colorectal cancer are beyond our control, there are a number of risk factors that are lifestyle related. "Being overweight or inactive; limited consumption of fruits, vegetables and fiber; and eating too much processed meat can increase a person's chances of getting colorectal cancer," said Dr. McNally, "Using tobacco products or drinking alcohol frequently may also increase your risk."
Screening and Prevention
At least six out of every 10 deaths from colorectal cancer could be prevented through regular screenings. "Colorectal cancer screenings can find precancerous polyps so they can be removed before they turn into cancer," added Dr. McNally. "Screening can also find colorectal cancer at an early stage, when there is a greater chance that treatment will be most effective and lead to a cure."
When Should You Have a Health Screening?
"Most people should start talking with their doctor about screenings around the age of 50 or sooner, then continue getting screened at regular intervals," said Dr. McNally, "However, some people may need to be tested earlier than age 50 or more frequently. You should speak to your doctor about screening earlier if you have a family history of colorectal polyps or cancer; have been diagnosed with an inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis; are of African American descent, or have other risk factors related to your lifestyle, such as smoking."
Screening tests that are used to find pre-cancer and cancer and their frequency include:
4 Colonoscopy: Every 10 years
4 Virtual colonoscopy: Every 5 years
4 Flexible sigmoidoscopy: Every 5 years
4 Double-contrast barium enema: Every 5 years
Screening intervals for tests that mainly find cancer:
4 Fecal occult blood test (FOBT): Every year
4 Fecal immunochemical test (FIT): Every year
"In addition to regular health screenings, people can also lower their risk by managing certain risk factors within their control, like choosing to eat a high-fiber diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans and whole grains," Dr. McNally advised. "Other healthy food choices include consuming calcium-rich foods like low-fat or skim milk, and limiting red meat consumption and avoiding processed meats. In addition, don't smoke and don't drink alcohol excessively.
"Physical activity is another area that most people can control. It is recommended that adults get at least 30 minutes of moderate or vigorous physical activity on five or more days of the week. Moderate or vigorous activity for at least 45 minutes on 5 or more days of the week may lower your risk for colorectal cancer even more."
Obesity also raises the risk of colon cancer in both men and women, but the link seems to be stronger in men. The American Cancer Society recommends that people try to maintain a healthy weight throughout their lives by balancing what they eat with their physical activity levels. "If you are overweight, check with your doctor about a weight loss plan that will work for you," Dr. McNally suggested.
From regular health screenings to simple changes to your daily lifestyle, colorectal cancer can be prevented and treated when detected early enough. Dr. McNally will have more on this topic on WKBN's "Ask the Expert" segment on March 18th at 5 p.m.
Meredythe McNally, M.D., is a board certified gastroenterologist, who is affiliated with Salem Community Hospital's active medical staff. Her office is located in the Gastroenterology Center of Salem, 2020 East State Street, Suite H in Salem, 330-337-8709.