March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month. It’s also referred to as National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month because your colon and rectum are connected (and combine to form your large intestine). The two work together to digest your food.
But no matter what you call it, Colon Cancer Awareness Month is a chance to educate yourself, your family and your friends about colorectal cancer. It is the second-leading cause of death from cancer in the United States, but it doesn’t have to be because colon cancer is preventable, treatable and beatable.
Many people who should be screened aren't. But it's getting easier. A new study found at-home screening tests are effective for average-risk people. Early diagnosis is critical. So, let’s look at some other ways you can decrease your risk.
How To Prevent Colon Cancer
The best way to prevent colorectal cancer is to get screened starting at age 50.
Your gastroenterologist removes any potentially-cancerous polyps that are found during your colonoscopy.
Colonoscopy is the most common screening test for colorectal cancer in the U.S. and has the longest rescreening interval of all test options. If your results are normal, and you’re considered average-risk, you won’t need another exam for 10 years.
Who’s at Risk?
An important part of colon cancer awareness is reviewing your family history. Up to 30 percent of colon cancer patients have a family history of the disease. Approximately 1 in 24 men and women will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer, which makes it the fourth- most common type of cancer diagnosed.
The risk of colorectal cancer increases with age, but the median age at diagnosis for colon cancer is 68 in men and 72 in women. For rectal cancer, the median age is 63 in both men and women. Other risk factors include:
- Physical Inactivity
African Americans have higher mortality rates and higher incidence rates of colorectal cancer than all other racial or ethnic groups, except American Indians and Alaska Natives. Genetics play a role, but it’s also linked to lifestyle factors such as diet, obesity and smoking. Colorectal cancer is also the second-most commonly diagnosed cancer among Latinos.
Learn The Symptoms
A big part of colon cancer awareness is understanding the symptoms. Early colorectal cancer often has no symptoms, which is why it’s so important to be screened regularly.
Warning signs include:
- Bleeding from your rectum
- Blood in your stool or in the toilet after having a bowel movement
- Dark or black stool
- A change in bowel habits or the shape of your stool
- Cramping or discomfort in the lower abdomen
- An urge to have a bowel movement when your bowel is empty
As a tumor grows, it may bleed or obstruct your intestine. Blood loss from cancer can also lead to anemia (low number of red blood cells). If this happens, you may experience symptoms such as weakness, excessive fatigue, and sometimes shortness of breath.
Use Colon Cancer Awareness Month as a reason to seek out information you can use to protect yourself from the disease. Here are some websites to find resources on the importance of screening and early detection of colorectal cancer:
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention promotes its “Screen for Life” campaign. If you’re 50 years or older, this campaign is for you. It contains a lot of information on screening tests, including fact sheets with the basics about colorectal cancer.
- The National Cancer Institute provides information about colorectal cancer on its website for the general public and health professionals.
- The HHS Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion developed an interactive tool to help you choose a colorectal cancer screening test.
The most important thing to take away from Colon Cancer Awareness Month is that screening saves lives. Taking the time to get a screening and educate yourself about the risk factors are the first steps.
If you’d like more information on how to decrease your risk of colon cancer and other diseases, talk to one of our physicians. And if you’re not sure where to start, take a look at our guide “Choosing a Primary Care Physician.” Inside you’ll find tips that will help you determine the doctor that’s right for you.