March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. The good news is that in the last decade there has been unprecedented progress in reducing colorectal cancer incidence and death rates in the U.S. The incidence in both men and women has been decreasing annually by about 3 percent, and the mortality rates have been dropping as well. These improvements are the result of cancer prevention and early diagnosis through screening and better treatment modalities.
Despite this encouraging news, there is still much to do. Colorectal cancer remains a disease that causes devastation and sadness to patients and their families, often when they least expect it and when people are in the prime of their lives. The incidence of colorectal cancer has actually been increasing in those under 50, and remains the fourth most frequently diagnosed cancer. It is the second leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. overall.
Education and awareness can change all of this. By talking about colorectal cancer and bringing it to the forefront, we can reduce people’s feelings of embarrassment or discomfort with the topic. Ideally, colorectal cancer screening should begin at age 50, with colonoscopy being the standard test.
It is important to note that your risk of developing colorectal cancer is increased if you have a personal or family history of colorectal cancer or adenomatous polyps, personal history of inflammatory bowel disease, or specific inherited syndromes. Such patients need to begin screening at age 40 or younger.
Being aware of symptoms, such as rectal bleeding and reporting it immediately to your physician, could lead to earlier diagnosis. Finally, limiting a diet high in red and processed meats, increasing exercise, limiting alcohol, addressing obesity, and stopping smoking also will help decrease colorectal cancer.
If you have a family history of colorectal cancer or are approaching age 50, be sure to ask your doctor about getting screened.
Steven J. McClane, MD, FACS, FASCRS, is the head of the Division of Colorectal Surgery at Cooper University Health Care and Co-Director of the Gastrointestinal Cancer Program with MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper. To learn more about colon cancer, including screening and treatment, click here.