March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month and with it comes an opportunity to bring attention to potentially lifesaving actions people can take.
According to the American Cancer Society, more than 132,000 people will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer in the United States this year, and an estimated 49,700 will die from the disease. In fact, colorectal cancer is the nation’s third-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in both men and women, accounting for about 8 percent of all cancer deaths.
And while a combination of earlier detection and better treatments have yielded a steady decline in the colorectal cancer death rate over the past 20 years, more than 1 in 3 adults in the United States who fall within recommended screening guidelines are still not being tested for colorectal cancer.
Early detection is key
The good news is that colorectal cancer can be completely prevented by screening and it is also one of the most successfully treated cancers if diagnosed early. The five-year survival rate is around 90 percent for colorectal cancers caught in their earliest stage.
The American Cancer Society recommends that most people begin regular screening at age 50, as more than 90 percent of cases are diagnosed in individuals 50 and older. People at higher risk, such as those with a family history of the disease, may need to start screening earlier. Obesity, physical inactivity, smoking, heavy alcohol use, a diet high in red or processed meat, and not eating enough fruits and vegetables also increase your chance of having colon cancer.
Regular screening is one of the most powerful weapons for preventing colon cancer. If polyps are found during colon screening, they can often be removed before they have the chance to turn into cancer. Screening can also result in finding cancer early, when it is easier to treat and more likely to be curable.
Myths about colorectal cancer
There are a number of myths about colorectal cancer that people use as excuses to avoid getting tested. One myth is that the tests are embarrassing and painful. The fact is there are a number of different tests for colorectal cancer, each with benefits and limitations. A discussion with your doctor can help you figure out what may be best for you.
The most common tests are stool tests and the colonoscopy. Stool tests are used to look for small amounts of blood or DNA passed in a bowel movement that might indicate a polyp or cancer. These simple tests are performed in the privacy of your home. A colonoscopy is done by a specialist in a hospital or outpatient center. A thin lighted tube is inserted into the rectum and allows the doctor to view the inner lining of the colon. Many people fear that this test will be painful. In fact, people who are having a colonoscopy are given medicine to help them relax and many sleep through the exam.
Most complaints about colonoscopy are not about the test itself, but instead focus on preparing for the test. In order for the doctor to get a good look at the colon lining the colon must be cleaned out with strong laxatives, so people spend a lot of time in the bathroom the evening before the test. This is not convenient and it can be uncomfortable, but it's a small price to pay for a test that may save your life.
Major strides have been made with screening rates in the United States, but we can do better. Members of the National Colorectal Cancer Roundtable, an organization co-founded by the American Cancer Society and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are embracing a shared goal to increase the nation’s screening rate to at least 80 percent by the year 2018.
Join the American Cancer Society in spreading the word this March, and beyond. If you haven't been tested, talk to your doctor. If you have been tested, talk to your family and friends. Make sure they know the facts and encourage them to get tested. Together we can help reduce the number of adults who develop and die from colorectal cancer.
For more information about colon cancer visit the American Cancer Society website.