The Silent Killer: How Plain Speaking About Colon Cancer Saves Lives
Many of us are taught that it’s not polite to talk about bowels, the rectum or colon, our own or anyone else’s. Yet the truth is, if we keep quiet about these necessary and normal parts of the body, it may have serious – even fatal – consequences. Equally, if we take good care of our colons, many of us will have a better quality of life. It’s also worth noting that it was not so long ago that people were also embarrassed to talk about breast cancer, prostate cancer and cancer itself. By raising awareness of these subjects, lives were saved through timely diagnosis and treatment. Now it’s time for us to take the same no-nonsense approach to colorectal cancer.
Colon and Rectal Cancers – A Clear and Present Danger
Excluding skin cancers, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the United States. The American Cancer Society’s estimates for the number of colorectal cancer cases in the United States for 2023 are:
- 106,970 new cases of colon cancer
- 46,050 new cases of rectal cancer
Colon Cancer Screening Saves Lives
Although the numbers are way too high, over the past few decades the death rate is getting lower and there are now more than one million survivors of colorectal cancer in the US. That’s the good news. The reason for this reduction that with greater awareness of colorectal cancer more are likely to have cancer screening – particularly colonoscopy. That means that a gastroenterologist is able to find and remove colorectal polyps before they develop into cancers. The screening process also reveals when the disease is present but earlier, when it is much easier to treat. Unfortunately that improvement in survivor statistics is mostly occurring in people over age 55. Who are also more likely to have screening. According to a recent NPR article, “There is broad agreement among doctors and researchers treating and studying this disease: The increased screening for colorectal cancer, which can involve removing polyps before they become cancer, has been a significant factor in reducing the burden of this illness”.
Colorectal Cancer Appears to be Growing Among Millennials and Generation-X
Nobody knows for sure why but in the younger than 50 age group the rates of colorectal cancer are rising about one percent per year. One factor may be that the over-50 contingent get screened more regularly and therefore are diagnosed and treated earlier. Another may be that there is a genuine increase in the disease in young people ages 15 to 39. Whatever the cause, this emerging trend means young people as well as those over 50 should consider learning the signs of possible polyps and other colorectal cancers, visiting a gastroenterologist if they are in doubt.
Who’s at Risk for Colorectal Cancer?
Based on the statistics just described, the older you become the greater the risk. But there are other factors that can impact your chance of developing colon cancer, they include:
Having a brother, sister, father, mother, or child with colon cancer or polyps, increases your risk of developing colon cancer.
People who are overweight are 30% more likely to develop colorectal cancer. However, losing the weight and regular exercise reduces your likelihood of developing the disease.
- Ethnicity and Race
African-Americans are of greater risk to develop and die of colon cancer, as are people of Jewish eastern European descent.
- Type 2 Diabetes
There is a link between type 2 diabetes and the risk of developing colon cancer and this is an independent correlation from diet or obesity.
- People with a History of Colonic Polyps or Colorectal Cancer
Most colon cancers develop from abnormal growths in the lining of the colon called adenomatous polyps. These can be found and removed at an early stage during a colonoscopy, before they have a chance to become cancerous.
- People with a History of Inflammatory Bowel Disease
For people of with ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease (collectively known as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), the longer they have the disease, the greater the risk of developing colon cancer. Do not confuse inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) which does not increase a person’s risk of developing colon cancer.
- Family Link to Colorectal Cancer
For people with a known family history of a hereditary colorectal cancer syndrome such as familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) or Lynch syndrome (also known as hereditary non-polyposis colon cancer or HNPCC).
There are other factors as well, but these are the most prominent risks associated with developing colon cancer.
Colorectal Cancer Signs and Symptoms
Colorectal cancer might not cause symptoms right away, but if it does, it may cause one or more of these symptoms:
- A change in bowel habits, such as diarrhea, constipation, or narrowing of the stool, that lasts for more than a few days
- A feeling that you need to have a bowel movement that’s not relieved by having one
- Rectal bleeding with bright red blood
- Blood in the stool, which may make the stool look dark
- Cramping or abdominal (belly) pain
- Weakness and fatigue
- Unintended weight loss
If you have these signs, don’t put your head in the sand. It is ignoring these early warning signs – especially when polyps haven’t developed into cancer. Thanks to screening, doctors can find and remove polyp or detect colorectal cancer when it is at an early stage and treatable.
When and How to Start Being Screened for Colorectal Cancers
A polyp may take as many as 10 to 15 years to develop into cancer. With screening, a gastroenterologist can find and remove polyps before they have the chance to turn into cancer.
If you have any of the risk factors or warning signs listed above, you should immediately make an appointment with one of our gastroenterologists or ask your primary care physician to refer you to one.
Otherwise, the gastroenterologists at Premier Medical Group recommend that regular screening begin at aged 45 (or younger depending on family history). The screening methods include stool-based tests or special exams such as a colonoscopy, a CT colonography (also called a virtual colonography) or a flexible sigmoidoscopy (FSIG). Don’t be silent and don’t delay beginning to protect yourself from colorectal cancer.
You, and people who care about you, will be glad you did.