By: Caylie Guinn, Health Educator at Little Red Door Cancer Agency, AmeriCorps Public Ally
Colorectal cancer—the disease behind the often-dreaded colonoscopy. But while most of us do not look forward to the intimate screening, it is one of the most useful and universal cancer screenings around. Colonoscopies have been shown to reduce cancer deaths by up to 70%. And unlike prostate or cervical cancer, colorectal cancers can affect all genders. In fact, colorectal cancer occurs in almost 140,000 Americans every year and kills nearly 50,000 people, second only to lung cancer.
What is Colorectal Cancer?
“CRC” or colorectal cancer refers to cancers found in the large intestine. Colon cancer takes place anywhere in the six-foot-long colon, while rectal cancer occurs specifically in the last five to six inches. These cancers most often begin as a polyp, or small growth, inside the lining of the intestine. When left untreated, this polyp can turn cancerous, growing rapidly and causing damage to the colon and surrounding organs. While there are not often symptoms in the early stages of colorectal cancer, some later-stage symptoms include blood in still, nausea, pelvic main, and changes in bowel habits or weight.
Over 90 percent of colorectal cancers are found in adults over age 50, which is why regular screening is important. Screenings for colorectal cancer include blood tests and DNA testing, though the most often recommended is a standard/optical colonoscopy. For this test, a lens is used to examine the interior of the colon and rectum. Many people may be nervous before their colonoscopies, but be reassured that these are routine, painless screenings that can greatly reduce the risk of death from CRC. In fact, when caught early, colorectal cancer often has a 90% five-year survival rate. The American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons offers more information, including a quick video on the most effective CRC screening, a colonoscopy.
Those with a family history of colorectal cancer, even if you are under 50, are at a higher risk. People with inflammatory bowel disorders may also be at a higher risk, as are those with a history of smoking and/or obesity. Talk with your doctor to determine if early screening would be helpful for you.
Can I Reduce My Risk?
To a degree, yes. As with most cancers, genetics can play a factor in one’s risk for colorectal cancer. However, there are several things you can do to actively lower your risks for polyps and colorectal cancer:
- Maintain a healthy diet.
Diets high in fiber and vitamins can help reduce risk, while too much red meat can negatively impact your risk. Ultra-processed foods can also increase one’s risk.
- Don’t use tobacco products. Tobacco in all forms can increase the risk of colorectal cancer, so it is important to avoid these products. If do use tobacco, it’s not too late to quit.
- Maintain an active lifestyle and healthy body weight.
- Get screened regularly. Just one of several screening options, colonoscopies can reduce the risk of dying from colorectal cancer by up to 70%. Especially if you have a family history of cancer, CRC-related illnesses, or are over the age of 50, talk to your doctor about which screenings are best for you. Find more information about screening here.
If you’ve been diagnosed with colorectal cancer, you are not alone. Organizations such as Fight Colorectal Cancer, Colorectal Cancer Alliance, and the American Cancer Society have resources and information for anyone curious about colorectal cancer, whether you or someone you love has been diagnosed, or if you want to know more about the fight against this disease. Additionally, Little Red Door provides many services for anyone on a cancer journey. From informational resources to our Door to Wellness program, Little Red Door is here to help make the most of life and the least of cancer.