Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month

Author: Kimberly N. Powell, DDS, MS

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month.  According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. It is a disease in which abnormal cells in the colon or rectum divide uncontrollably, ultimately forming a malignant tumor (National Cancer Institute).  The American Cancer Society reports risk factors for colorectal cancer as being overweight/obese, physical inactivity, diets high in red meat and processed meat (i.e. hot dogs and luncheon meats), smoking, heavy alcohol use (more than 2 drinks a day for men and 1 drink a day for women). These risk factors can be controlled.  The ones that can not include being older (risk increases as you age), certain ethnic or racial groups (African Americans have the highest incidence and mortality rate), type 2 diabetes, family history and/or personal history of the disease or polyps (abnormal growths), history of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s, inherited syndromes (Lynch syndrome and familial adenomatous polyposis).

Signs and symptoms of colon cancer may include changes in bowel habits, such as diarrhea or constipation or a change in consistency of stool that last longer than four weeks, persistent abdominal discomfort (cramps, gas, pain), rectal bleeding or blood in your stool, weakness or fatigue, unexplained weight loss (Mayo Clinic).

Screening for colorectal cancer is extremely important.  The National Cancer Institute reports the recommendation for regular screenings to begin at age 50 for individuals at average risk, and people at increased risk (family history, IBD, inherited conditions) may be advised to start screening before 50 and more frequently. Screening tests fall into two categories, stool-based tests and visual tests. Stool-based tests are noninvasive and do not require a special diet or bowel preparation (laxative).  The tests look for tiny amounts of blood in the stool and/or DNA/gene changes. Any abnormalities in the findings will need to be followed up with a colonoscopy. The visual test are invasive and include a colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy. If a positive diagnosis results, surgery, most common treatment, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and targeted therapies are some treatment options (MD Anderson Cancer Center). The National Colorectal Cancer Roundtable 2019 initiative is the Next 80%.  It continues the work that began in 2018 to achieve 80% colorectal cancer screening rates in every community. The rates of new colorectal cancer cases and deaths among adults aged 50 years or older are decreasing in this country due to an increase in screening and to changes in some risk factors, but incidence is increasing among younger adults for reasons that are not known (National Cancer Institute). Still, regular colorectal cancer screening is one of the most powerful weapons for preventing colorectal cancer according to the American Cancer Society.  

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”  – Benjamin Franklin