It often has no symptoms. It is easily prevented if it is detected early, but it kills if not diagnosed.
It is colorectal cancer and it is the third most common cancer diagnosed in the United States and the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths, according to the American Cancer Society. The Prevent Cancer Foundation estimates that 148,810 cases were diagnosed and 49,960 Americans died from the disease in 2008.
Your lifetime risk for developing colorectal cancer, cancer of the colon or rectum, is almost 1 in 20 and your risk increases as you get older.
Fortunately, colorectal cancer is one of the most easily prevented cancers because it commonly develops from polyps that can be removed before they become cancerous. Finding and removing polyps or other areas of abnormal cell growth may be one of the most effective ways to prevent colorectal cancer development. Also, colorectal cancer is generally more treatable when it is found early, before it has had a chance to spread.
Polyps appear to be caused by both inherited and lifestyle factors. Genetic factors, such as a family history of colorectal cancer or inflammatory bowel disease, may determine a person's susceptibility to the disease. Dietary and other lifestyle choices may determine which individuals actually go on to form polyps. Diets high in fat and low in fruits and vegetables may increase the risk of polyps. Lifestyle factors such as cigarette smoking, a sedentary lifestyle and obesity may also increase the risk, according to the Prevent Cancer Foundation.
Early detection through screening is vital because colon cancer may not present any symptoms. The American Cancer Society lists possible early symptoms of colorectal cancer as unexplained weight loss, change in normal bowel habits, unexplained anemia (low blood count), fatigue, visible blood in the stool and sustained abdominal pain. The best time to get screened is before any symptoms appear.
Colorectal cancer is more common in older adults, so doctors usually screen people age 50 and older. Some people have risk factors that make them more likely to develop colorectal cancer at a younger age. You should be screened at a younger age if you have:
• Had colorectal cancer or polyps in the past;
• A family history of colorectal cancer or polyps;
• Ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease;
• A hereditary colon cancer syndrome; or
• A high-fat, low-fiber diet.
You should be screened for colorectal cancer every five to 10 years. If you have any of the risk factors, you may need to be tested more often. Talk to your family doctor to decide how often you should be screened.
A colonoscopy, considered the gold standard procedure for colon cancer screening by the American Cancer Society and other professional organizations, identifies possible problems and any polyps, which are removed during the outpatient procedure. Preparation for the colonoscopy begins the day before when the patient takes a prescribed laxative. The patient is sedated, so the procedure is relatively painless.
Less invasive procedures, such as a non-invasive endoscopy or a virtual colonoscopy, are available but they do not give the in-depth information that a colonoscopy provides. If a less invasive procedure does discover a problem, a colonoscopy is then performed. Your doctor can discuss the various procedures in detail.
Even though colorectal cancer is easily prevented and has a high cure rate when detected early, many people avoid being screened due to embarrassment or fear of pain. But screening for colorectal cancer saves lives. When caught early, the five-year survival rate is greater than 90 percent.
Discuss your health history with your doctor to decide the best way to proceed. Do not let fear or embarrassment keep you, or a loved one, from a potentially l