Colorectal cancer is one of the most deadly forms of cancer in the United States. In fact, it is estimated that over 50,000 people will lose their battle with colorectal cancer this coming year. This is such an unfortunate and devastating statistic, especially when you consider that many cases of colorectal cancer could have been detected early enough to give treatment options a real chance at success. As such, March was made National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month in an effort to raise awareness, encourage screening, and ultimately to lower the statistics and odds of diagnoses moving forward - and it’s important for all of us to commit to doing our part!
What is Colorectal Cancer
Colorectal cancer is the development of cancer in the colon or rectum. The term is used for cancer diagnoses in either the colon or rectum as both conditions are similar in the way they progress and present. Colorectal cancer begins when the abnormal growth of cells begins in the colon or rectum. As time progresses, the cancerous mass causes cell death in the tissues of the colon that leads to a variety of symptoms and loss of colon function. As with all types of cancer, it can also eventually spread to other parts of the body.
Colorectal cancer usually begins with polyps, which are small growths on the inner lining of the colon or rectum. Though many polyps are benign at first, some types can eventually become cancerous. Two types of polyps - hyperplastic polyps and inflammatory polyps (that are typically associated with inflammatory bowel disease), have very low malignancy potential and therefore are very unlikely to lead to cancer. Adenomatous polyps are a type referred to as precancerous, and they are much more likely to lead to colorectal cancer.
Will I Get Colorectal Cancer?
Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut answer to this question. Estimates do show, though, that 1 in 23 men and 1 in 25 women will develop colon cancer at some point in their lifetime. It is the third most common cause of cancer in both men and women in the United States. While tens of thousands will lose their battle to colorectal cancer this year, one positive development is that the death rate for colorectal cancer is actually coming down some. This is due to a number of things, but can largely be attributed to raised awareness and increased screening (*outside of 2020, which showed a decrease in screenings). Even so, colorectal cancer is one of the most deadly cancers because, very often, patients don’t even realize that something is wrong. Colon cancer is largely asymptomatic until it reaches the later stages of the disease. Unfortunately, once colon cancer reaches its later stages, the chances of survival decrease significantly.
Stages of Colorectal Cancer?
Colon cancer is divided into stages and substages to show the severity and even potential progression of the disease. As a general rule, the lower the number in regards to stages, the less the cancer has spread. In general, colon cancer stages and survival rates are:
- Stage I cancers: This represents a very early form of cancer where the tumor has been located in the colon or rectum, but has not spread or reached the outer linings of the colon. There is an estimated 80 to 95 percent 5-year survival rate for Stage 1 cancer.
- Stage II cancers: This represents a relatively early form of the cancer, although it has grown and spread to the outer linings of the colon or rectum. There is an estimated 55 to 80 percent 5-year survival rate for Stage 2 cancer.
- Stage III cancers: This represents a more advanced stage of the cancer where the tumor has spread past the outer lining of the colon or rectum and into nearby lymph nodes. There is an estimated 40 percent 5-year survival rate for Stage 3 cancer.
- Stage IV cancers: This represents a highly advanced stage of the cancer where the tumor has spread past the outer lining of the colon or rectum and into surrounding lymph nodes and into at least one other organ in the body, usually the lungs or the liver. There is an estimated 10 percent 5-year survival rate for Stage 4 cancer.
Symptoms of Colorectal Cancer
One of the things that makes a colorectal cancer diagnosis so devastating is that the symptoms aren’t usually noticeable until late-stage III or stage IV. This makes early detection absolutely imperative. There are very few noticeable symptoms of colon cancer when the disease is in its earliest stages. This is because the most common place where colorectal cancer is formed, in polyps, is a condition that is largely asymptomatic and does not produce symptoms. If you have polyps on your colon, they are only visible through diagnostic testing, such as colonoscopy.
Unfortunately, the signs and symptoms of colon cancer may resemble other GI conditions, so you may not realize something is immediately wrong. Common symptoms include:
- A change in bowel habits
- Rectal bleeding
- Cramps, bloating, or gas pain
- Unexplained weight loss
- Fatigue or lethargy
- A feeling that your bowel does not empty completely
Experiencing any of these symptoms or other changes in bowel habits that persist longer than several days should be a red flag when it comes to your health. As such, you should let your doctor know immediately and schedule an appointment.
Risk Factors for Colon Cancer
Doctors are still not entirely sure why some people are more predisposed to colorectal cancer than others. With that being said, there are some risk factors for colorectal cancer that involve both genetic factors, which are unavoidable, and lifestyle factors, which you have some level of control over.
Some lifestyle risk factors for colon cancer include smoking, the overconsumption of alcohol, eating a diet that is high in fat, eating a diet that is high in sugar and/or processed foods, and eating a diet that is high in red or other processed meats. In addition, those that do not get enough exercise and life a more sedentary lifestyle are at a higher risk, as are those that are obese or even overweight.
There are also many genetic risk factors or unavoidable risk factors for colorectal cancer. Family history with colorectal cancer, polyps, or IBD is known to increase one’s risk. A personal history of polyps, IBD, or even having type 2 diabetes increases one’s risk as well. Being of Ashkenazi Jewish or African American descent seems to indicate one will be at an increased risk of colorectal cancer. Lastly, a family or personal history of inherited syndromes like Lynch syndrome or familial adenomatous polyposis is known to increase the risk as well.
Preventing Colon Cancer
No matter your age, there are ways you can improve your odds of preventing colon cancer. Some include making adjustments to your lifestyle. This can include:
- Eating less red meat
- Avoiding processed meat (like lunch meat, pepperoni, etc.)
- Adopting a more plant-based diet
- Exercising daily and avoiding a sedentary lifestyle
- Avoiding drinking to excess
- Quitting smoking
- Losing weight if overweight
- Decreasing stress levels
In addition, it is important to get screened when you are of the age where screening should occur. When it comes to the colonoscopy, which is a very effective test to determine the health of your colon and whether or not you have colorectal cancer, screening should begin at the age of 50 unless you are predisposed genetically to the disease. As always, it is important that you talk to your doctor about screening and when to begin.
You can spread colon cancer awareness to family and friends by letting them know about the risk factors and how to adopt healthier habits. It really is important for all of us to do our part, even if we have been screened and are deemed healthy. If you need more information about colon cancer or would like to be seen by a physician, make an appointment with us today.