If you only take away one thing from this article, it should be this: colorectal cancer testing is one of the best ways to protect yourself from this deadly disease, so talk to your doctor about when testing is right for you.
Take a couple more minutes to learn about colorectal cancer causes, risks, and prevention. The more you know, the easier it is to take the right steps to protect yourself.
What is Colorectal Cancer?
Colorectal cancer is the second-deadliest cancer in the United States. It’s usually thought of as men’s health issue because, even though both men and women are at equal risk, men are more likely to develop rectal cancer. Also known simply as colon cancer, it’s a disease that occurs in the colon (the bowel) or rectum (the passageway from the colon to the anus). Colon cancer starts as abnormal growths called polyps, which may become cancerous over time. If these polyps are detected early enough, there is an excellent chance of survival. However, left undetected, the polyps can quickly become cancerous. And left untreated, colon cancer can quickly spread to other areas of the body. This is why everyone over the age of 50 needs to get screened.
What Are the Symptoms?
Colorectal cancer often has no symptoms, which is why regular screenings can make the difference between life and death. As the disease advances through the body, common symptoms include:
- A noticeable change in your bowel habits that last four weeks or more
- Bloody stools (bowel movements)
- Stomach pain or cramps that don’t go away
- Unexplained weight loss
If any of these symptoms sound familiar, particularly the ones relating to your bowel and bathroom habits, see your doctor right away.
Risk Factors You Can’t Change
Age is the number one risk factor for colon cancer. Statistics show that 90% of colorectal cancer cases occur in those 50 years of age or older.
Other risk factors include:
- A personal history of inflammatory bowel disease
- A family history of colorectal cancer
- Certain genetic/inherited abnormalities such as Lynch syndrome, familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP), and others
If you have any of these risk factors, your doctor may recommend early or frequent testing.
Risk Factors You Can Control
When you make healthy lifestyle changes to cut your risks for colon cancer, you’re also protecting yourself from many other cancers, heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, depression, and more.
- If you’re overweight, losing just a few pounds can help cut your risks.
- Heavy drinking raises your risks, so try cutting back on alcohol.
- Smoking/tobacco use increases your risks for almost all cancers and many other diseases, so take steps to quit.
Increase your activity level, particularly cardiovascular exercise. Even taking a few brisk walks every day helps.
- Increase your activity level. Even taking a few brisk walks every day helps.
- Ditch the red meat or processed meat products (such as hot dogs and luncheon meat) and opt for lean meats like chicken or fish instead.
Over 50? Schedule a Checkup!
For those who don’t have the genetic, family, or personal health concerns listed above, the CDC recommends regular screenings beginning at age 50, and screenings following doctor’s recommendations until age 75. Proactive health screenings are some of the best protection against many types of cancer. Adults between the ages of 76- 85 should get screened only when directed by a doctor.
There are several different ways to test for colorectal cancer. Your doctor will recommend the best option for you based on your health history, current risk factors, and your personal preferences. Some of the tests, like the fecal immunochemical test (FIT), are done once a year, and can even be done in your own home. A colonoscopy is a more invasive screening but is only performed once every 10 years. Plus, colorectal cancer screenings are covered at no cost to you by most health coverage plans.
It’s important for you to feel comfortable talking about delicate health matters with your doctor. It’s their job to listen to your health problems and make you feel protected and respected. To help you get that right ‘fit’ so you can start building a great doctor/patient relationship, we created an easy-to-use online tool that lets you find doctors based on your personal preferences for gender, language, and even location. Give it a try – and then schedule that checkup!