Answering a few FAQs about colorectal cancer

Published: Monday, March 4, 2024
Colon and Rectal Surgery, General Surgery

March is designated as Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, designed to raise awareness about cancer affecting the colon or rectum. How much do you know about this common type of cancer? 

The American Cancer Society estimates that 152,810 Americans will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2024, making it the fourth most common type of cancer. While the condition is common, it’s also largely preventable and treatable with early detection. Keep reading to learn more. 

What is colorectal cancer?

“Colorectal cancer” is an overarching term for a cancer that forms in either the colon or the rectum, which are both parts of the large intestine. While colon cancer and rectal cancer are two separate diagnoses, they’re often combined as one and referenced as colorectal cancer. 

Colorectal cancer typically begins as a polyp in the lining of the colon or rectum. This type of cancer is often slow-growing, so it can take years for precancerous polyps to develop into cancer, if they do so at all.  

Who’s at risk of developing colorectal cancer?

Anyone at any age can develop colorectal cancer, but certain factors can put you at a higher risk. Risk factors for this type of cancer include: 

  • Being African American 
  • Being overweight or obese 
  • Being physically inactive 
  • Drinking alcohol excessively 
  • Eating a diet high in red and process meats 
  • Having an inflammatory bowel disease, such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease  
  • Having a personal or family history of colorectal cancer or polyps 
  • Having certain genetic syndromes  
  • Using tobacco products 

Previously, most cases of colorectal cancer were diagnosed in older adults. That’s the case with most types of cancer, since risk increases as we age. In recent years, though, more young adults are being diagnosed with colorectal cancer in advanced stages. 

Researchers aren’t entirely certain why that is but believe it may have something to do with our lifestyle habits. Regardless of why younger adults are developing colon and rectal cancer, it’s an important reminder to keep an eye on your health and report any suspicious symptoms to a medical provider. 

What are the symptoms of colorectal cancer?

In its earliest stages, colorectal cancer may not cause any noticeable symptoms. As it progresses, however, it can cause a number of uncomfortable and even debilitating symptoms. Colorectal cancer symptoms may include: 

  • Bloody stool 
  • Changes in bowel frequency and consistency for longer than a few days  
  • Fatigue 
  • Frequent gas pains 
  • Persistent bloating or a feeling of fullness 
  • Recurring stomach cramps 
  • Weight loss with no known cause 

Because symptoms of this type of cancer often impact the digestive system, they may be seen as embarrassing or too personal to share with others. It’s important to overcome this stigma—treat your digestive health like you would any other aspect of your health.  

Know your body and how it works. You should also check in with your primary care provider when you spot anything that’s out of the ordinary. It’s always better to have yourself checked out for something that turns out to be minor than to ignore symptoms that could be cancer. 

Do I need colorectal cancer screening?

Because colorectal cancer doesn’t always cause symptoms—especially in its earliest stages, when it’s most easily treatable, screenings are important. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that adults at average risk of colorectal cancer begin screenings at age 45 and screen until at least age 75. 

If you’re at a higher risk for some reason, such as having a family history of colorectal cancer, you may need earlier or more frequent screenings.  

There are several different types of colorectal cancer screenings, and your medical provider can recommend the type that will work best for you. How often you’ll need to be screened will depend on a number of factors, including the type of screening you choose. 

Stool tests can be used to detect blood in the stool or the presence of altered DNA in the stool. Standard blood stool tests are done annually, while the FIT-DNA test, which detects altered DNA, is done every three years. 

Flexible sigmoidoscopy involves placing a short, flexible, lighted tube in the rectum to check for polyps or cancer in the rectum or the lower third of the colon. This test is done every five years or every 10 years with a stool test every year. 

Colonoscopy is probably the type of colorectal cancer screening you’re most familiar with. A colonoscopy is similar to flexible sigmoidoscopy, but a longer tube is used to examine the rectum and the entire colon. Colonoscopy is recommended every 10 years for those at average risk. 

This type of screening is considered the gold standard for colorectal cancer screenings since it allows a doctor to remove polyps and some cancers during the screening test. If abnormalities are detected through other screenings, a colonoscopy is usually recommended for further testing. 

Can colorectal cancer be prevented?

Many cases of colorectal cancer can be prevented thanks to the screening tests outlined above. If abnormal cells develop in the colon or rectum and grow into polyps, it can take up to 10-12 years for them to become colorectal cancer. 

Because of that, screenings are an invaluable tool for finding polyps that could eventually become cancer and removing them.  

There are also other steps you can take to lower your risk of developing colorectal cancer. If you take a look at the list of risk factors for this type of cancer, you’ll notice that many of them are lifestyle-related. 

Adjusting your habits can help you lower your risk. Start by becoming more physically active and improving your diet. Aim for at least 20 minutes of physical activity each day and eat a largely plant-based diet. 

If you eat meat, choose lean proteins such as chicken or turkey. Steer clear of red meat and processed meat like hot dogs, since they’ve been linked with a higher risk of colorectal cancer. 

It’s best to avoid alcohol consumption, but if you drink, stick with a moderate amount. That’s no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. 

And if you’re a smoker, now’s the time to stop. Smoking increases the risk of colorectal cancer and many other health issues, so work with your provider to find a cessation strategy that meets your needs. 

Learn more

If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with colorectal cancer, the Cancer Services team at Northeast Georgia Medical Center is here to help. Call 770-219-8815 or click here to learn more.