Colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in American men and women separately, and the second leading cause when the sexes are combined, says the American Cancer Society. The good news? Early detection and regular screenings can help prevent the disease and often cure it.
What colorectal cancer is
Colorectal cancer is cancer that starts in the inner lining of the colon (the large intestine) or rectum. The cancer begins as a polyp, and eventually cancer cells can break free and spread to other parts of the body. It's important to remember that polyps are often benign, but some may lead to cancer.
Who’s at risk
Both men and women are at risk for colorectal cancer. Men have a one in 21 chance of getting it; women, a one in 23 chance. Experts aren't sure why, but African-American men and women have an even higher risk. Causes Studies show that certain factors may increase the risk of developing colon cancers, but why and how they affect the disease is still unknown. “Being overweight or inactive, eating a diet rich in red or processed meats, smoking and heavy drinking can all increase your risk. Those over 50 or those with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) have an increased risk, too,” says James Goad, MD, board certified surgeon and colorectal specialist. Up to 20 percent of people with colon cancer have a family history of it. Experts believe that when the disease runs in the family, colon cancer can hit harder than in other cases.
Signs and symptoms
Colon cancer is sometimes called a "silent killer" because it often has no symptoms until the disease has progressed. Symptoms of colon cancer may include:
- Prolonged diarrhea and constipation
- Feeling like you still have to go after a bowel movement
- Rectal bleeding
- Blood in the stool
- Weight loss
- Weakness and fatigue
- Abdominal discomfort, pain or cramping
Screening can help doctors find the polyps and remove them early on, or diagnose and suggest treatment. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) and the American Cancer Society recommend screenings for people with average risk beginning at age 50. If there is a family history of colon cancer or even colon polyps, screenings should be done beginning at age 40, or 10 years younger than the age at diagnosis, whichever comes first.
The cancer’s stage, location and type will all dictate which treatment option is right for you. “Most people with colon cancer need surgery to remove part of their colon. Some may be helped by chemotherapy before or after surgery. And a few may have only chemotherapy,” says Dr. Goad.
While you can’t control your genes, you can take care of your body. To lower your risk of colon cancer:
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Quit smoking
- Stay active and exercise regularly
- Avoid overeating red meat, and eat plenty of fiber
- Limit alcoholic beverages to one or two drinks a day
- Get regular screening
This content originally appeared on Sharecare.com.