Despite being one of the leading causes of cancer deaths in America, colorectal cancer doesn’t receive the attention it deserves. The American Cancer Society estimates there’ll be about 153,020 new cases of colorectal cancer in the US this year and 52,550 deaths. This society has raised concerns about increasing diagnosis rates in younger people (below 45 years) and more advanced stages of disease at diagnosis (where it’s harder to treat).
Lauren Tatum was 25 years old when she was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer—20 years younger than the official age to even start to screen for the disease. She died five years later. Her mother, Denise, now works to increase colorectal cancer awareness for Black people, who are 20% more likely to get the condition and 40% more likely to die from it than other ethnicities. “Talk to your doctor if something doesn’t seem right,” she says.
March is colorectal cancer awareness month— a time to create awareness about and prevent more cases or deaths. The blue ribbon is the symbol of colorectal cancer awareness and a reminder to do more.
More support for those with the condition.
Here’s more information about colorectal cancer and how to reduce your risk.
What is colorectal cancer?
Also sometimes called colon cancer, colorectal cancer is an uncontrolled growth of cells in your colon –the lowermost part of your intestines. The colon is a tube-like organ that ends at the rectum and performs these essential functions:
- Makes and absorbs vitamins
- Absorbs nutrients and water into your body
- Helps form your feces (poop) and move it downwards
- Houses over 500 types of gut bacteria, which help keep you healthy
- Secretes mucus to help the food in the intestines move along smoothly
The rectum is the last part of the colon. Its function is to help the colon store poop until you can use the toilet. The colon and rectum help you digest foods and expel waste and undigested food products.
Colorectal cancer symptoms often appear late; you may not experience symptoms at the early stages of the disease. Symptoms, when they appear, may vary depending on the size and location of cancer. Common symptoms may include:
- Blood in your poop or bleeding when you poop.
- A lingering change in the number of times you poop and how firm it is. For example, having a harder time pooping (constipation) or frequent, watery poop (diarrhea)
- Ongoing abdominal concerns like gas, cramps, pain, and bloating
- Feeling like your bowels don’t empty fully after you poop
- Tiredness and weakness
- Unexplained weight loss
There are two types of risk factors for this condition: those you can’t change and those you can.
a. Risk factors you can’t change
Your risk of colorectal cancer increases if:
- You get older. The risk rises from 45 years but can happen as early as 20 years
- You have an inflammatory bowel disease like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
- You had colorectal cancer or polyps before, or someone in your family did
- You have a generic syndrome such as Lynch syndrome, or familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) syndrome
b. Risk factors you can change
Some risk factors are linked to habits and can be changed, including:
- A diet low in fruits, vegetables, and fiber
- A diet high in fat and processed meat
- Low physical activity levels
- Being overweight or obese
- Smoking cigarettes
- Drinking alcohol
Just like with many diseased, when you detect colorectal cancer early, treatments are more likely to be successful. It is important to see your care team as soon as you experience symptoms!. If investigations confirm that you do have colorectal cancer, your treatment plan will depend on the size, location, and cancer stage. Depending on multiple factors, you may be offered surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or a combination.
The best way to prevent colorectal cancer is by screening to detect it early!
Other ways to reduce your risk include:
- Get at least 30 minutes of exercise five times a week.
- Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Gradually increasing the amount of fiber in your diet is an easy improvement and allows you to get used to the associated gas or bloating that sometimes accompanies increased fiber intake
- Limit high-fat meals like those with plenty of butter, lard, or vegetable oils.
- Limit alcohol intake.
- Stop smoking.
- Be sure to check in with your primary care team and medical home if you are concerned about any symptoms or risk factors.
Colorectal cancer is often detected late, leading to thousands of deaths yearly. With earlier screening and detection, we can reduce deaths from this condition. Lifestyle changes like a healthy diet, enough exercise, limited alcohol, and no smoking also help reduce your risk. Spreading awareness of colorectal cancer can also help save lives, and you can support our efforts toward this here.
- ACS. Key Statistics for Colorectal Cancer
- Fight Colorectal Cancer 2021 Cologuard Classic | Fight Colorectal Cancer
- ACS. Colorectal Cancer Rates Higher in African Americans, Rising in Younger People
- ACS. The Colon: What it is, What it Does | ASCRS
- ACS. Signs and Symptoms of Colon Cancer.
- CDC. What Are the Risk Factors for Colorectal Cancer? | CDC