Colorectal cancer, a disease of the colon or rectum, is the third leading cause of death from cancer in the U.S. However, screening for colorectal cancer can help detect cancer at an early stage and decrease the number of deaths.
In observance of Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, we talked to Kristi Lopez, M.D., a gastroenterologist and HMSA medical director, about colorectal cancer risk factors and the benefits of getting screened.
What are the risk factors for colorectal cancer?
The first risk factor is age. As we get older, our risk for colon cancer increases. Another risk factor is family history, If someone in your immediate family has a history of colon cancer or precancerous colon polyps, you may have an increased risk of colon cancer.
Also, if someone is overweight (with a body mass index, or BMI, of 25 and above) or obese (BMI of 30 and above), their risk for colon cancer increases. Other risk factors include eating an excessive amount of red meat or processed foods, smoking, drinking alcohol, and not being active.
How can we reduce the risk?
Some ways that we can decrease our risk for colon cancer are to increase our physical activity and become more active, eat vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, quit smoking, and avoid alcohol.
What are some signs and symptoms we should watch for?
If you’re experiencing the following symptoms, please talk to your primary care provider. Symptoms that may be concerning include blood in the stool, blood in the toilet bowl or on the toilet paper, abdominal pain or bloating, change in the size and shape of your stools, and unintentional weight loss, meaning that you’re losing weight without trying.
Who should get screened for colorectal cancer?
The age recommendations for screening have changed. It used to be age 50 but now we’re screening people starting at age 45. Interestingly, colon cancer rates are going down between the ages of 50 and 70, but rates are increasing for people younger than 50. I'm highly encouraging everyone to get their colon screening starting at 45.
If you have a family history of colon cancer or colon polyps, your screening age may start earlier, so talk to your parents and siblings about their history and your primary care provider to see if you need earlier screening.
How often should screening occur?
It depends on the findings of a colonoscopy and family history. Recommendations are tailored to each individual. This is a topic that patients can discuss with their primary care provider.
Also, the best screening is a screening that gets done. If you don’t want a colonoscopy, there are other options such as a stool test or other noninvasive tests. However, the colonoscopy is the only test that can screen for colon cancer and prevent it.
What does a colonoscopy entail?
During a colonoscopy, we remove polyps, which are growths in the colon. Some polyps can be normal and some can be abnormal. Since all cancer begins from a polyp, we can prevent colon cancer by removing polyps.
I know there can be some apprehension about preparing for a colonoscopy. It’s important to clean out the colon so we’re able to see the lining and remove small polyps. The preparation and procedure might be a short period of inconvenience, but it’s important to remember that it’s a way to advocate for your health. And many people find that the prep is now easier than it used to be.
Why is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month important?
At HMSA, we care about our members. We want everyone to live happy, healthy lives. Colon cancer screening is one of the most important tests you can get. Early detection is key to saving lives, so talk to your doctor about getting screened.
Check out this video with Dr. Lopez sharing insights about colorectal cancer, screenings, and more.