As the new year continues and spring approaches, it is essential to keep our health in focus. Healthy lifestyle habits and screenings are two simple ways to ensure a healthy and happy year. March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness month, and it is a good time to review facts, and understand the risk factors and screening guidelines.
Colorectal cancers occur in the colon, rectum or anus. It is the third most common cancer in both men and women. Screening helps prevent colorectal cancer and can provide early-stage diagnosis. With an early-stage diagnosis, the cancer is smaller and potentially easier to treat. When cancer is found early, the five-year survival rate is greater than 90 percent.
Things to watch for and share with your doctor are rectal bleeding, blood in stool, dark or black-colored stools and change in shape of stool. Additional symptoms to watch for are lower stomach cramping, unnecessary urge to have a bowel movement, continued constipation or diarrhea, and unintended weight loss.
Anyone can get colorectal cancer, but some may be at a higher risk. Men are at higher risk than women, and Black people are at more risk than other ethnicities. Additional risk factors include older age, personal and/or family history of polyps or colorectal cancer, inflammatory bowel disease (IBS), genetic syndromes (i.e., Lynch Syndrome), and type 2 diabetes.
What does all this mean for you? If you are 45 years old or older, talk to your physician about getting screened. However, if you have any of the risk factors above, or are experiencing symptoms, contact your physician immediately.
The good news is that today, there are several options available for screening tests. There are stool-based tests that can be completed at home with no bowel preparation or sedation, although these may not show if there are polyps and can miss some cancers.
Visual examination tests are colonoscopy, or CT colonography. With colonoscopy, a physician views the entire colon and rectum. If polyps are noted, they can be removed during the procedure. This is the gold-standard test and the most thorough screening. Based on the results, a repeat colonoscopy may need to be done in three, five, or 10 years. For this method, you will be sedated, and a full bowel preparation is required.
CT colonography can view the entire colon and rectum and can be done every five years. No sedation is needed, and it is a quick exam. This is a new test that shows polyps and areas of concern but does not allow for polyps to be removed at the time of the screening, and full bowel preparation is still needed.
To stay on track with your health and lower the risk for colorectal cancer, be sure to manage your diet and maintain a healthy weight. Eat lots of vegetables, fruits and whole grains, while minimizing the intake of processed meats and red meat. Exercise and be active! Limit alcohol consumption and stop tobacco usage.
Be in tune with your body. Know the signs and risks of colorectal cancers. Talk to your doctor and get screened. Early detection is vital – so just do it!
Dr. Jeffrey Owsley is a medical oncologist at Lutheran Medical Center.