March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, making it the perfect time to ensure that patients understand the risk factors and importance of screening for the disease.
Colorectal cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed form of cancer in the United States. It affects men and women of all racial and ethnic groups, and more than 90% of cases are diagnosed in people 50 years of age or older.
Sometimes called colon or rectal cancer, colorectal cancer includes cancers that first develop in the colon or rectum. Most cases are caused by abnormal growths inside the colon or rectum called polyps—non-cancerous growths that can develop slowly into cancer over several years. If a polyp does become cancerous, the cancer grows into the wall in the colon or rectum, from which it can expand into blood vessels and lymph vessels. From here, the cancer can spread throughout the body.
If screenings show polyps, a biopsy is needed to check for cancer. Cancerous polyps then need to be removed as soon as possible through a colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy. When colorectal cancer is detected and polyps are removed within the early stages of the cancer, treatment is usually successful and patients have a 90% survival rate.
Researchers are still unsure of what causes colorectal cancer, but they have identified several risk factors. People with a family history of colorectal cancer or a personal history of other cancers are more likely to develop the disease. Those with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, are also at increased risk. In addition, obesity and cigarette smoking have been shown to increase the risk of colorectal cancer.
Certain inherited gene mutations and syndromes have been linked to increased rates of colorectal cancer among younger people. The 2 most commonly inherited disorders associated with colorectal cancer are familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) and hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC). For those with a genetic predisposition to develop colorectal cancer, early screenings are essential in preventing its development.
Regular screenings for colorectal cancer should begin at age 50. However, those with additional risk factors, such as family history or IBD, should consider screenings at a younger age.
Although colorectal cancer is common in the United States, treatment with high survival rates is possible when patients understand their risk factors and receive regular screenings.
For more information on National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, go to http://ccalliance.org/awareness_month/