Colorectal cancer is cancer that begins in the colon or rectum. Depending on its origin, the condition is often called colon cancer or rectal cancer. This type of cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer death in the United States, with more than 142,000 new cases reported in 2019. There’s no sure way to prevent colorectal cancer, but you can take steps to help lower certain risk factors and detect potential issues early.
Understand Colorectal Cancer Risk Factors
There are several factors that can increase your risk of developing colorectal cancer, although it’s not yet known exactly how those risk factors can cause this disease. You can take steps to potentially reduce your risk by changing certain lifestyle habits, although it’s impossible to control other risk factors.
Risk factors that cannot be controlled include:
- A personal or family history of colorectal cancer
- Inflammatory bowel disease, including Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
- Certain inherited gene mutations
- Race and ethnicity
Controllable lifestyle factors that may increase your risk include:
- Being overweight or obese
- Physical inactivity
- Diets high in red meat and processed meat or low in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
- Low vitamin D levels
- Alcohol consumption
- Smoking or tobacco use
Watch for Signs of Colorectal Cancer
Many symptoms can indicate colorectal cancer, although other health conditions may also cause these symptoms. Talk to your doctor right away if you experience any of the following:
- A change in bowel habits, including diarrhea or constipation that lasts longer than a few days
- Blood in your stool
- Bright red rectal bleeding
- Cramping or stomach pain that does not go away
- Weakness or fatigue
- Unexplained weight loss
What is Colorectal Cancer Screening?
Colorectal cancer most often develops from abnormal growths called polyps. Screenings can help identify potential issues for people who are not experiencing any symptoms. Regular colorectal cancer screening is one of the most important tools used to find these polyps and remove them before they turn into cancer.
The American Cancer Society outlines colorectal cancer screening guidelines for individuals at an average risk. Regular screening should begin at age 45 and continue through the age of 75. Individuals ages 76 to 85 should speak with their doctor to see if screening should continue based on their overall health, life expectancy, and preferences.
Several test types are available for colorectal cancer screening, including stool-based exams or visual exams, like colonoscopies. Stool-based exams provide a quick and simple way to screen for colorectal cancer, and these types of tests can be conducted from home or a provider office. Colonoscopies may be required to be conducted less frequently and offer a more accurate form of screening for cancer. Individuals with an increased risk may need to begin more frequent screenings using specific tests at an earlier age. Always talk to your doctor about your risk level to determine the screening schedule and test that’s best for you. You may want to ask your doctor questions such as:
- What screening test(s) do you think are best for me, and why?
- Do I need to take any steps to prepare for the test, including any changes to my diet or medication?
- Will the test be uncomfortable? Will I receive a sedative?
- Are there any risks?
Insurance often covers some types of colorectal cancer screening tests, so review your health plan to learn about benefits or limitations. Take steps today for a healthier tomorrow by scheduling your colorectal cancer screening.