Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States. However, it is highly preventable through early detection, yet many people remain unaware of their screening options. That’s the main message of Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, which is celebrated each March. Screening is especially important for preventing colorectal cancer because the disease does not usually have noticeable symptoms until it is advanced.
Who should be screened for colorectal cancer?
The U.S. Preventative Task Force recommends that people age 45 to 75 be screened for colorectal cancer, and that those age 76 to 85 discuss screening with their doctor. People at higher risk for colorectal cancer should be screened earlier. A personal or family history of precancerous polyps or colorectal cancer or a personal history of inflammatory bowel disease, familial adenomatous polyposis, or hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer increases a person’s risk. There are several preventable risk factors for colorectal cancer as well, such as excessive alcohol use, obesity, physical inactivity, smoking, and certain diet factors.
What colorectal cancer screening options are available?
There are many options for colorectal cancer screening. The fecal occult blood test checks for trace amounts of blood in the stool that may not be visible. These tests should be performed yearly and have shown to reduce colorectal cancer deaths by 15 -33%. The stool DNA test detects trace amounts of blood, as well as three genes that have been found in colorectal cancer and precancerous advanced adenomas. Advantages of these two screening tools are that an invasive procedure is not required, and samples can be collected at home and sent to a laboratory for analysis.
The sigmoidoscopy and colonoscopy are similar screening exams in which a scope is used to visualize colorectal tissue. The sigmoidoscopy is an examination of the sigmoid and rectum, while the colonoscopy is an examination of the rectum and entire colon. Sigmoidoscopy can reduce risk of death from cancer of the sigmoid and lower colon by 60-70%. The colonoscopy requires more preparation to clear the bowel and sedation is required for the procedure, but it is the most complete screening exam available. Another advantage of sigmoidoscopy and colonoscopy is that lesions suspicious for cancer can be removed at the time of the procedure.
How can you lower your risk for colorectal cancer?
In addition to screening, Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month aims to educate the public on the steps you can take on your own to help reduce your risk:
- Consume a diet high in vegetables and grains and low in red and processed meats.
- Increase your physical activity and maintain a healthy weight.
- Do not smoke
- Limit alcohol intake to no more than one drink daily for women and two drinks daily for men. (One drink is equal to 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1.5 ounces of liquor.)
Understanding your treatment options
If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with colorectal cancer, it’s important to understand all the treatment options. The disease is often treated with a combination of modalities, including surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. Proton therapy is a more precise form of radiation therapy that lowers the risk of treatment-related side effects during and after treatment. We encourage patients to do their own research and seek multiple opinions.