Colorectal Cancer: Preventable, Treatable, Beatable

Dr. Emily K. Ward is a gastroenterologist at Lutheran Medical Center.

A couple of things come to mind when we think of spring. One is certainly taxes, and the other should be that March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. If we understand one message from these columns, hopefully it is that prevention is best and denial is not the river in Egypt!

The American Cancer Society estimates that over 151,000 new cases of colorectal cancer (CRC) will occur in the U.S. in 2022, resulting in over 50,000 deaths. Increased screening and improvement of modifiable lifestyle choices has led to a decrease in the number of CRC cases since the mid 1980s. However, cases are steadily on the rise in the under-55 age group. 

Overall, the lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer is about 1 in 23 for men and 1 in 25 for women. Several prior studies have found that women are less likely to be screened for CRC than men. Thus, ladies, let’s catch up to the men!

Who should be screened for CRC? The answer is everyone. For the average person, screening starts at 45 and continues every 10 years up to 75.

Those at higher risk of CRC should start screening at 40 or earlier. Talk to your health care provider if you have any of the following factors that put you at higher risk:

• a personal or family history of colon cancer or certain polyps, including hereditary colorectal cancer syndrome

• a personal history of inflammatory bowel disease such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease

• a personal history of radiation treatment to the abdomen or pelvis from prior cancer

What does screening involve? Just like there are many options when preparing your tax return, there are several options for CRC screening, some of which are non-invasive. These may be appropriate for those at average risk of CRC.

Alternatively, your doctor may suggest you have a CT scan, sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy. A colonoscopy would require a bowel prep so the doctor can visualize your intestinal tract. If polyps are present, they may be removed during your colonoscopy and sent to pathology.

But wait, isn’t this expensive? The old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure is true. Screening colonoscopy is covered by insurance since the Affordable Care Act was enacted. There may be a cost for the bowel prep, anesthesia or biopsy results.

Lastly, let’s review those modifiable risk factors: quit smoking, maintain a healthy weight, be physically active, eat a healthy diet and minimize the intake of meats and processed meats.

Just as you shouldn’t put off your taxes, leading a healthy lifestyle and getting important screenings should be part of your annual plan.

Dr. Emily K. Ward is a gastroenterologist at Lutheran Medical Center.

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