March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month. Colon and rectal cancers (colorectal cancer) are the third most common cancer diagnosed and the second leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States. Despite the prevalence of colorectal cancer in America, the overall incidence of colorectal cancer has been in decline for decades. At the same time, 5 year survival rates for people diagnosed with colorectal cancer have increased.
The decline of colorectal cancers is due, in large part, to advances in existing cancer screening technologies such as colonoscopies and CT scans. Colorectal screenings can help to identify colon polyps which can be removed before they develop into cancerous tumors. The American Cancer Society currently recommends people of average risk get screened for colon cancer starting at age 50. People who are at a high risk may need to get tested earlier or more often depending on their risk category. The American Cancer Society Guidelines on Screening and Surveillance for the Early Detection of Colorectal Adenomas and Cancer in People at Increased Risk or High Risk can be found here.
Starting at age 50, the American Cancer Society recommends screenings such as lower GI series, CT colonography, or flexible sigmoidoscopy should be done every 5 years. If any of these screenings yield abnormal results, a colonoscopy will be needed. Otherwise the American Cancer Society recommends a colonoscopy every 10 years. There are also several tests that can be done to find colorectal cancer by testing stool samples. Talk to your doctor about the pros and cons of these tests and to determine which tests are most recommended for you based on your risk factors. For a description of these tests as well as a list of pros and cons, click here for more information.
While current recommendations call for colorectal screening to begin at age 50, a new study has shown an increase in colon and rectal cancer among adults younger than 50. This is the only population showing an increase in diagnosis, as overall colon and rectal cancer diagnoses are decreasing in number. The cause for increased diagnosis of these cancers in young people is yet unknown. While the trend does seem alarming, the number of diagnoses for younger adults has been increasing for decades (since the mid 70's) yet despite this increase, overall incidence of colorectal cancers have continued to decline, especially in people aged 55 and older. More research and studies will need to be done to determine the long term impact this will have on society.
Unlike many other forms of cancer, colon cancer is largely preventable and beatable. Colorectal cancer is both preventable and prevalent, which is why screening for the disease is so important. Polyps can sometimes take 10-15 years before they develop into cancer, so finding them early and having them removed can help to prevent colon cancer. Colon cancer is also 90% treatable when found in the early stages and, like other cancers, is much harder to treat in the later stages. Making healthy lifestyle choices can also help prevent colorectal cancer. Healthy lifestyle choices such as exercising, maintaining a healthy weight, eating a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and wholegrain fibers that is low in red and processed meats, avoiding smoking and heavy alcohol use.
Community Care Physicians has numerous practices that can screen for colorectal cancer. ImageCare Medical Imaging offers CT colonography while Community Care General Surgery and the Endoscopy and Surgical Care Suite offer colonoscopies. If you are at higher risk for colorectal cancer or are at least 50 years of age, talk to your doctor about your next colorectal screening.